A recent BBC News feature reported that one in four people suffer from a mental health ‘episode’ at some point in their lives. What’s more, according to charity, Mind, some 60-70 per cent continue to work while ill. To think that this happens even in this day and age is unbelievable; is mental health really still such a taboo subject in the workplace?

It was different years ago. Thinking back to my own early working days, no one disclosed if they were depressed, stressed or enduring any other mental health issue, and it was rarely mentioned on doctor’s notes. Why? Because it was considered a sign of weakness; not a ‘real’ illness, and it could create reputational damage for the individual.

Speaking from personal experience, I think the majority of companies are trying their utmost to understand, but that doesn’t mean we get it right all of the time. This may seem controversial, but it’s also not solely the responsibility of HR to help individuals with mental health. Mind is appealing for employers to provide more support, to both help and retain staff, but in reality, what should an employer be doing?

Mental health training for managers

Managers have a duty of care towards each and every member of their staff. They are the ones who should notice any odd changes and patterns of behaviour that are out of character, such as absence or poor performance. Managers need to feel confident enough to approach the individual and ask: “Are you all right?” and be able to deal with the answer. This doesn’t mean that managers have to try and find solutions, but they should be able to direct individuals to the people that can, usually their GP or family, and if appropriate, to the company’s employee assistance programme or occupational health provider (which should be widely publicised).

It’s key to remember that you can’t make people tell you how they are feeling. Some will keep it to themselves. What’s important is to create an open, understanding culture in which individuals feel they could speak up as and when they’re ready. This may involve training to change perceptions and mind-sets, in addition to a general awareness of mental health and how to spot the signs.

An invisible illness

Of course, some individuals won’t ever accept they have a problem. Throughout my HR career, I’ve seen instances where it’s apparent there are clear mental health problems, but the individual refused to seek help or guidance. In some cases, this led to serious misconduct or performance issues, which are never easy to deal with.

The most important thing any employer can do is to support, understand and not stigmatise those who are suffering. I’m pleased to say that all of the individuals I have supported through their mental health illness have returned to work and remained in work.

I appreciate that, because it’s not a ‘visible’ illness, some managers may find it difficult to address the problems that can occur as a result of mental health, but clear communication is vital.

No doubt many of you have different opinions on this matter, but should you need support yourself, please speak to your GP in the first instance. If you’re an employer who wants guidance or to gain a better understanding of managing mental health in the workplace, please get in touch.

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