This week we are celebrating Mental Health Awareness Week. With sickness rates at a record high and cases of mental health absence on the rise, what does it mean for employers?
What is Mental Health Awareness Week?
It’s an annual event hosted by the Mental Health Foundation and it’s a time where the whole of the UK comes together to highlight the importance of achieving good mental health for all. Each year, there is a key theme to drive focus on a particular mental health topic and this year’s topic is anxiety.
Why Do Employers Need to Worry?
First of all, it’s the law! Employers have a ‘duty of care’ which means they must do all they reasonably can to support their employees’ health, safety and wellbeing. As such employers must treat mental and physical health as equally important.
Aside from the legal obligations, the statistics on absence are fairly sobering. Data from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that there were more than 1.8 million work-related ill health cases – new or longstanding – in 2021-22, with one of the primary causes of ill health being work-related stress. The data suggested that these accounted for more than 30 million working days lost over the past year.
Grim predictions indeed. And economists are warning it could get worse. With the financial worries people are now experiencing, this will only be adding to the levels of depression and anxiety.
So it’s a problem employers can’t afford to ignore.
What Can Employers Practically Do?
It may not seem particularly innovative, but robust and clear absence management policies are an essential part of an employer’s toolkit to providing the right support for employees in the workplace. Clear policies help line managers understand how and when to intervene and they provide clarity for employees on procedural steps, reassuring them on what happens and when, as well as signposting what support is available.
Return-to-work interviews (RTW)
Taking prompt action to talk to employees about their absence is important for the management of any absence, but can be really insightful in regards to providing the right support with mental health concerns. The RTW interview is dedicated time to allow an employee to share any health concerns or anxieties in a safe space. Using this time to listen and ask appropriate questions can be powerful, especially if employees are struggling to articulate what’s going on or just feel embarrassed asking for help. Managers can use the time to discuss with the employee what support might help – that may be internal support such as temporary flexible working arrangements to attend external appointments, additional training or agreed reassignment of tasks if the individual is feeling overwhelmed by their workload; or it might be signposting to any external support such as a company employee assistance programme or external agencies such as Time to Change and Mind. Line managers should check in with employees regularly to assess the effectiveness of interventions and identify any further adaptations or support needed.
Dealing with the issue when it presents as absence is great but ideally you want to prevent it getting to that stage if possible. As with the RTW, regular one-to-ones provide valuable time for line managers and employees to focus on that individual. With remote and hybrid working very much in vogue, it’s never been more important to check in with your team regularly. Whether you do that in person or remotely, you can still ask the relevant questions and look for visual cues on how that person’s doing – how are they coping with their work? Do they have any issues or concerns? Is there anything going on for them outside of work? Not only will managers have a detailed understanding of how their staff are doing, but by committing to regular one-to-ones, line managers can also show their employees that they are a truly valued part of the organisation.
Events such as Mental Health Awareness week are a great way to shine a spotlight on the subject of mental health but you don’t have to wait for official events. You can start the conversation with your staff by having your own focus week on mental health, signposting policies and support available, running discussion events or inviting external speakers in to talk to staff. Importantly keep the conversation going by regular communications with staff, ensuring they know where to access wellbeing and support services that could help them.
Encourage positive mental health by offering mental health training to all your staff. Enable line managers to help their teams, and colleagues to provide meaningful support to each other by increasing their understanding of the subject. You could also train some staff to become mental health first aiders providing another source of guidance for staff when they need it.
If your work environment allows for it, consider providing a room or an area that encourages headspace or downtime. If that’s not possible or if staff are working remotely, encourage them to take regular breaks away from their screens. Research has shown that when work becomes pressurised, taking breaks can increase productivity and focus when staff return.