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Mental health problems: an invisible vulnerability

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One of the most common and perhaps most invisible forms of vulnerability among employees relates to mental health and the impact of long-term stress. While HR and line managers are not expected to be experts in mental illness, fostering a workplace culture of openness is key.


Around one in 100 people in the United Kingdom has a specific and diagnosed mental health problem, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or chronic depression, according to data from the Mental Health Foundation; and approximately 20% of us will experience a more common mental health problem at some point in our lives, including anxiety, depression, panic disorders and phobias. This may well be an underestimate, given the difficulties in capturing accurate figures.

The Equality Act of 2010, which draws together previous pieces of legislation around discrimination by gender, race, age, sexuality and disabilities of any kind, is the relevant legislation employers need to be aware of to deal with mental health issues in the workplace. Essentially, employers must not treat a disabled person less favourably than any other employee, including during recruitment and redundancy processes. The law in this case sees ‘impairment’ due to a mental health condition as a form of disability, which doesn’t have to mean a diagnosed clinical condition. Under the Act, employers must not discriminate on the grounds of disability and must also make reasonable adjustments to work practices and conditions in response to requests for support from employees.

While this may appear straightforward, in practice, mental health at work is a complex area that requires well-informed and thoughtful management. All employees clearly need to remain capable of doing the job they’ve been appointed to, however, having a mental health problem can cause disruptions to work performance.

A high level of stress on an ongoing basis, for example, leads to a fundamental change in our ability to perform. Anxiety, panic and depression cause a disruption in our hormones and emotions. When this becomes chronic, as in mental health problems, it affects the way we think about work, our relationships, achievements and capabilities. We can become unable to think clearly, to deal with complex decision-making; we can’t be creative, can’t cope with taking risks and can’t empathise with others. It also means we start being unable to find solutions to everyday problems and we lose hope that the situation of anxiety will ever change.

To avoid discrimination in the workplace on the grounds of mental health, managers need to be careful when it comes to decisions on promotions, rewards, bonuses, access to training and opportunities in general. Constant micro-management could be perceived as evidence of unfair treatment. If you’re providing rewards for good attendance, then isn’t that discriminating against people who need to attend regular therapy sessions or hospital appointments?

The key to defusing potentially difficult relationships with employees is transparency. Mental health is a joint responsibility between employers and employees. Employers need to do all they can to create a working environment that pays attention to the work culture and the relationships with employees, encouraging disclosure of any mental health issues when they occur. Employees need to recognise when they have a mental health problem which is affecting their work, and be willing to disclose what’s happening and take responsibility, alongside their organisation, in trying to address the problem.

In practice, there are a number of issues for an employer to consider. An ‘open’ culture can’t be forced. To explain this further: if your business involves working areas where there is a tradition of ‘banter’ ­– for example, manufacturing, emergency services and helping professions, where staff might use humour to defuse the everyday stress from working in a high-risk environment – there can be less willingness to be open about mental health.

All employers should make information and resources around mental health accessible to their employees, demonstrating awareness and understanding of how commonplace and ‘ordinary’ conditions such as anxiety and depression can be. They need to be clear on what staff are entitled to as a way of reducing the stigma: workers are entitled to be heard, to have a confidential conversation about mental health problems and how they’re affecting their work, to ask for help, and to have these requests promptly dealt with.

A way to access resources, events and a network of organisations looking at ways to address the issues is to sign up to the Mindful Employer Charter. The charter was set up in response to a growing recognition that people with mental health issues were still being discriminated against in recruitment and selection processes, and that something more than legislation was needed. The aim is to secure a change in attitude and a greater understanding among employers that, once appropriate support is provided, most people go on to contribute like any other employee.

The charter encourages organisations to make positive statements about mental health issues in recruitment literature, ensure all staff involved with recruitment are briefed on mental health issues and the Equality Act, and not just assume that everyone with a mental health problem will take more time off work or not be able to cope with everyday levels of work stress.

Major employers like BT and Nationwide have signed up but the initiative is equally relevant to small firms. There is also a national campaign, Mental Health First Aid, where employers can send staff for training on how to recognise and prevent worsening problems.

Dealing with something as intangible and sensitive as mental health is tough for human resources departments. For line managers it can be something they’d just prefer to avoid. As a first rule, managers need to be clear they aren’t expected to be experts – no-one within an organisation needs to think they have expertise in solving mental health problems. Instead, the role of HR and managers is to have general knowledge of the implications of mental health issues, to be understanding and to have conversations that facilitate a next step. The follow-up is the critical part. Employees need to be given a clear route forward, whether that’s access to an Employee Assistance Programme provided by the organisation, to counselling, or to speak with their GP.

More organisations are rolling out workshops for managers on awareness of mental health issues and how to help those suffering from them. Dealing with mental health problems among staff is a challenge for many employers, but currently there are many available resources to try to avoid discrimination of these particularly vulnerable workers.

Mandy Rutter is head of resilience and trauma management services at Validium.

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