How to support an employee with mental health problems

Here, Alison King, director of Bespoke HR, guides us on how, as a business leader, you can support staff with mental health issues.

Work-related stress, depression and anxiety are the biggest causes of work absence, accounting for 45 per cent of all lost working days last year. According to the Health and Safety Executive, over 450,000 people experienced mental health problems due to work-place stress in the last year alone.

Research from Mind shows that 42 per cent of people have considered resigning due to stress. With high profile campaigns like Time to Talk and Heads Together encouraging us all to talk more openly about mental health problems, it’s essential that businesses get on board.

How do I know if an employee is experiencing a mental health problem?

Everyone manages and copes with stress in differing ways, but when stress becomes unmanageable it can result in changes to a person’s behaviour. Ultimately, you know your team, but if you have any concerns some of the signs to look out for include:

Changes in the way they interact with colleagues, perhaps becoming withdrawn or increasingly irritable and impatient.
A noticeable decline in their quality of work and a general disinterest in what they are being asked to do.
They may be struggling to make decisions, appearing anxious when asked questions, or unable to cope with simple tasks which once would not have phased them.
Struggling to understand instructions.
A change in physical appearance, they may look tired or have lost interest in their appearance altogether.
Changes in eating habits, eating considerably less or more than usual.

How to have a conversation

Campaigns like Time to Change have been launched to reduce the stigma of openly discussing mental health issues. The most important thing you can do as an employer is open the dialogue; avoiding the subject will only make it worse for an employee.

Start the conversation

Whilst it may not be easy, addressing the issue is the first step in supporting your employee. Choose a quiet place, possibly away from the workplace, where they feel comfortable and able to talk. Most importantly, assure them that your conversation will be confidential.

Ask simple questions

Don’t make assumptions about what’s happening to them. Give them the opportunity to discuss their feelings without making any judgements. Asking simple questions to understand the issue will mean that they don’t start to feel overwhelmed.

Be honest

If their work is starting to suffer, make sure you communicate this and make them aware of the impact stress is having at work. Reassure them that you will work together to address this, and that this is not a disciplinary.

Create an action plan

Establish what support they need, what would make their time at work easier and how you can work together. Identify what triggers stress, what can be done to alleviate this, and agree on a timeline to review the situation.

Be flexible

Don’t attempt a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach as everyone is different.

Be positive

Reassure your employee that you can work together to find the solution.

Don’t be afraid to seek outside help

There are many organisations who can support you (the employer) and your employee (see below).

What the law says

It is your duty to protect your employees’ health whilst at work.

Prevent all employees from being subjected to bullying or harassment. Implement a bullying and harassment policy for all employees and ensure any such incidents are treated seriously.

Develop an equality policy and promote awareness.

Ensure employees are not discriminated against on recruitment, promotion, pay or conditions.

How to create a culture of wellbeing at work

Creating a healthy workplace can help to address mental health issues before they arise. Consider some of the following options for your business:

Flexible working policies: these are particularly useful for team members juggling family commitments, but can help with staff who may be feeling anxious or stressed at busy times in the office.

Enforce breaks: encourage staff to take comfort and lunch breaks to get away from their desks.

Host regular catch ups: to encourage staff to discuss their work – consider continuous performance reviews, instead of annual appraisals. Creating an open culture where staff can talk to managers will help to reduce stress and anxiety.

Set realistic goals and deadlines: overwhelming workloads and unmanageable goals all contribute to stress levels.

Introduce a mentoring scheme: matching employees with managers to support and guide them.

Layout of the office: introduce quiet zones or desk dividers if appropriate.

Keep records of absence: record all sick days.

Create a policy for supporting staff with mental health issues so that all managers understand how to tackle issues.

Alison King is director for Bespoke HR.

Further reading on mental health

Nominations are now open for the British Small Business Awards, the leading event celebrating the brightest stars in the SME sector. Click here to enter, and make sure you get involved today using the hashtag #BSBAwards. Good luck!

Owen Gough, SmallBusiness UK

Owen Gough

Owen was a reporter for Bonhill Group plc writing across the and titles before moving on to be a Digital Technology reporter for the

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