Business management

Open your mind to mental health

How can you support employees suffering ill mental health? We look at the steps to take within your SME.

Many may feel uncomfortable disclosing personal problems, while others fear their manager will think they can’t do their job. “It’s worrying that half of those with mental health problems still don’t feel able to speak to their boss,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at Mind. “Many feel unable to speak out.”

Mental health issues may be invisible, but they account for 70 million (12%) of all Britain’s sickness absence days. Over a third (36%) of employees questioned in a Public Health England study felt a history of depression should affect someone’s promotion chances, compared with just 24% for diabetes.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, says Mamo. “By properly supporting those with a problem, and by creating mentally healthy workplaces, organisations can help keep people at work.”

So how can you support employees with mental health issues – and encourage your staff to do likewise?

How do I identify a problem?

“People try to hide mental health issues,” says Dr David Crepaz-Keay, head of empowerment and social inclusion at the Mental Health Foundation. “But it’s clear if they’re tired or irritable; make mistakes; seem distracted; work more slowly; withdraw from conversation; don’t seem to be taking personal care of themselves. Everyone has bad days, but if you notice a pattern, the first thing is to find out if they’re okay.”

Arrange to meet them somewhere private and quiet – a neutral space, says Mamo. “Your office could be imposing – take them for a coffee. Then ask simple, general questions about how they’re feeling, and invite them to talk. Don’t judge and don’t make assumptions. Focus on the person, not the problem – listening is a fantastic start. If they don’t want to speak now, you’ve let them know you care, and you’re there when they need you.”

Assure them your chat is confidential – and ask them who you can share this information with, advises Mind. Then you/your HR team can begin to work with them on practical short- and long-term solutions, such as addressing specific work problems, giving them leave, rearranging their hours or providing medical help.

Try to address the cause

City worker Paul was promoted to lead a team two years ago – but staff cuts meant he soon struggled. “I was trying to do four roles, while trying to motivate my team when I couldn’t motivate myself. I also had two young children, a disabled brother, a terminally ill father, a recently widowed friend – everywhere I turned, someone was relying on me. My anxiety got so bad I’d hide in the toilet at work until I was brave enough to go back out and pretend everything was fine.”

It’s about creating an environment where people feel supported and are unafraid to highlight concerns about themselves or their colleagues

Carole Black
Assistant headteacher at Dr Challoner’s Grammar School

Paul eventually admitted to his employers he had a problem. “They were great – my boss listened, the HR manager sent me home straightaway and the company doctor organised therapy for me. I was anxious things would be the same when I returned but they listened again, reworked rotas and changed responsibilities around. It’s much calmer – and now I’m back, I can cope and feel very well protected.”

How can I help my staff attain better mental health?

Pastoral care has always been a priority for pupils at Dr Challoner’s Grammar School in Amersham, but now assistant headteacher Carole Black prioritises positive mental health for staff, too.

Using Mind’s Workplace Wellbeing Index as an external benchmark, she surveyed her team, asking what made their job difficult. “They didn’t feel in control of their workload, or the speed and communication of change, felt isolated at their computers, sometimes didn’t feel valued. These were all impacting their mental health, and I realised I could improve all of them.”

So Black signed up to Mind’s Five Ways to Wellbeing and introduced some ideas to her staff. Some were work-related – “walking meetings are great, much more relaxed than sitting across a table” – others extra-curricular, such as monthly staff cake socials. “Sometimes it’s only 20 minutes at break time but people’s faces really light up. It’s amazing what a boost just that little interaction gives you for the rest of the day.

“We have an after-school teachers’ Wimbledon tournament – no children allowed – and others have started a book club and a badminton club.”

What about those who don’t want to participate? “Some are cynical,” says Black, whose efforts saw her named one of Mind’s Wellbeing Champions, an exemplar for other organisations to follow. “But it’s about showing it isn’t a gimmick. As part of our staff meetings, one of us shares how the job impacts our own mental health. I spoke honestly about how I’ve had days when I’ve felt ill, overwhelmed, didn’t want to get out of bed, or didn’t even feel I was entitled to my job.

“Hearing the boss say that is very powerful – showing my vulnerability and insecurities makes [others] understand that if they have no issues now, they know that when they do, you’ll listen and understand.”

Spread the message

Training staff in mental health issues can bring huge benefits. New charity Mates In Mind delivers courses to employees in the construction industry, where more workers die from suicide than from falls.

“In our industry it was once a weakness to talk about mental health,” says charity co-founder Russell Stilwell, MD of RSE Building Services, who has suffered depression. “Now we’re encouraging firms to embrace it. Beside the social aspect there’s very much a corporate responsibility factor to protect employees. Training is critical in helping staff recognise distress and vital in changing organisational culture, treating mental health the same as any health and safety issue. Training helps spot the signs, to notice if John’s not his normal self, or if Jane’s acting out of character. We’re all vulnerable. But I’m proof people can recover if they get the right support.”

Black agrees. “It’s about creating an environment where people feel supported, and are unafraid to highlight concerns about themselves or their colleagues. After all, regardless of job titles or rank, we’re all the same – human.”

How to help your staff

  1. Connect: Staff might struggle to ask for help. Seek them out and ask how they are. If they say “fine” ask again – it’s often the second time of asking that they’ll open up.
  2. Listen: Make them aware you’re there for them. Don’t judge, just listen. Let them know your conversation is confidential, and ask their permission before sharing it with anyone else, such as HR.
  3. Acknowledge: Ensure your employee knows you recognise that mental health is as vital as physical health, and that sick days can be used for mental, as well as physical, problems.
  4. Empathise: Ask your employee how you can help – if they need time off, or support to resolve an issue, or other ways the company can assist them.
  5. Plan: Help them create a clear short-term solution. If this means time off, stay in touch regularly but sensitively and develop a longer-term plan for their return, always so they understand your primary concern is their well-being – not how soon they can be rushed back.

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