One in four British adults will experience a mental health issue during their lifetime, and one in five will experience depression. With this in mind, says Polly Allen, from Inspiring Interns, here’s how you can support employees who tell you they’re struggling with depression or anxiety in the workplace.
Fresh Business Thinking regularly reports on mental health business stories; in 2015, this site revealed shocking statistics from AXA PPP stating that over two-thirds of senior managers or business owners don’t think mental health is a valid reason to take time off work.
Today, we’re more aware than ever of the impact mental health issues can have on every part of our lives – including our jobs. In fact, one in four British adults will experience a mental health issue during their lifetime, and one in five will experience depression.
With this in mind, here’s how you can support employees who tell you they’re struggling with depression or anxiety in the workplace.
Catch up regularly
Offer your employee regular one-to-one chats so they can air their concerns and you can work together on any action plan linked to their health. Be led by what your employee wants; if they don’t want the rest of the team to know about their depression or anxiety, you need to respect that.
If you’ve scheduled an event that could be difficult for them, like a team-building day or a conference at the other side of the country, you need to let them know as soon as possible so they can plan ahead. Should they not feel comfortable attending an event, because it could be bad for their mental health to do so, don’t make a big deal out of it. Your business won’t crumble because they couldn’t go on a group paintballing trip.
You could also ask them for appropriate team-building ideas that would cause less anxiety, such as a day volunteering in the community for a charity of their choice, or a life drawing class. Don’t try to be a mind-reader; get their input.
Get HR involved
Your HR department (if you have one) should definitely be involved in your employee’s ongoing situation, and they can also offer you advice on how to handle any problems. For example, if someone needs regular time off for medical appointments or talking therapy, or they are signed off work by their GP, HR will let you know how to work around this. Your employee will probably be worried about letting you down or leaving projects uncompleted, so they need your reassurance.
Be aware that employees in some industries have higher risks of suicide than most. In a recent survey, the Office for National Statistics found that low-paid male construction workers, and females working in either culture, media and sport, healthcare or primary teaching were more likely to be suicidal.
Not all workplaces offer counselling, and you can’t force an employee to have talking therapy, but you can point them towards useful charities, such as Rethink or Sane, who will listen without judgement.
Spread the workload
Once an employee has declared a mental health condition, you’re legally bound to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to help them in the workplace. Mind, one of the UK’s leading mental health charities, has a useful guide for employers. Whilst some of these adjustments will involve physical changes, like giving more flexible hours or a quiet corner of the office, actual tasks are just as important.
Talk to your employee about what they find difficult, and how their condition affects their work. For example, many people with depression find it harder to concentrate and to juggle multiple tasks. Others may feel very sleepy as a side-effect of medication.
Break down the tasks that you both agree aren’t urgent, and any tasks that can be given to other team members, making it clear the list can be adjusted if there are problems along the way. This is even more crucial in a smaller business, where workers feel duty-bound not to overload their colleagues and might end up taking on too much as a result.
Create a healthier workplace
There are loads of easy adjustments you can make to promote health at work. One of the most obvious is the Mental Health First Aid kit, a course designed in Australia in 2000 to recognise and support mental health problems at work. Similarly, Business in the Community has a Mental Health Toolkit relevant to companies of all sizes.
Simple steps could include encouraging everyone to take a proper lunch break and to step away from their computers at regular intervals during the day. Keep any unhelpful workplace banter in check – phrases like ‘man up’ or ‘pull yourself together’ can be damaging. Also, consider making a meeting room available a few times a week for calming activities, such as yoga, meditation or mindfulness, which could be led by staff or by an instructor. Someone facing anxiety will appreciate having a quiet space instead of a busy staff room.
Meanwhile, weekends and holidays should be sacred unless your industry involves unsociable hours. Several experts, such as career confidence coach Sherry Bevan, have found employees are happier and more productive after a holiday, so it makes no sense to hound them. Encourage out-of-office replies and cover systems for everyone on your team.
Remember this is an illness
It’s really important to recognise that mental health is just as important as physical health. When someone has time off, or needs their schedule adjusted to help manage their condition, they’re not trying to get out of doing work. Check in with them if they’re absent for more than a few days, but definitely don’t start leaving messages on their phone about an ‘urgent’ report that needs doing! Make it clear their wellbeing is key.
Once it’s appropriate for someone to plan their return, look up Fit for Work, which can support both you and your employee (with their consent) through the process. You should hold a face-to-face ‘return-to-work’ interview to plan how you’ll gradually settle them in again.
Remember, someone doesn’t just snap back after sick leave, especially if their condition is long-term. A heavy workload can’t be maintained without your employee risking further health problems. Just be tactful, patient and supportive, so your employee feels valued as a person.