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Managing mental health problems at work

Most employers want to do the right thing by employees experiencing mental distress but don’t know what to do.

It can be very difficult to see people in distress and easy to think you could make it worse. But many effective responses don't need extreme intervention. 

In other words, sometimes small actions - such as just listening - make a big difference.

Recommendations for employers

These include:
  • Be a good employer. Someone who is experiencing distress might be anxious about being treated fairly. A trusting relationship means they are more likely to discuss their challenges sooner and more honestly, which means you could put in place strategies early, or even prevent problems arising.
  • Provide a safe environment for talking. Encourage awareness and provide information about mental health issues, including alcohol and drug misuse and addiction.
  • Ensure zero tolerance in the workplace for discrimination based on people’s mental health status. Check out the Like Minds Like Mine discrimination information for workplaces.
  • Help employees with mental health problems stay at work and return to work. Being at work and able to be productive in a supportive environment can be very helpful to their recovery.
    • Jointly create a support plan with the employee. This could involve other support people, such as family members or clinicians. A good support plan includes:
      • listening non-judgementally and with empathy, respecting privacy and confidentially
      • understanding what you can legally ask your employee, what’s reasonable and relevant
      • not jumping to conclusions about what’s needed
      • not making assumptions about what it means to have a mental illness
      • keeping focused on the strengths the employee brings to the workplace
      • building trust by keeping your word
      • working with key support people.
  • Avoid labels. Focus on the specific problems relating to the workplace and how these can be overcome rather than what a person’s diagnosis is or might be. Name behaviours that may be problematic and consider how they can be helped, while being aware of potential prejudice. Potential mental health problems are many and varied and may affect individuals in different ways. Also, diagnoses are often provisional and can change. Don’t play doctor – clinicians and counsellors will address medical issues and counselling needs.
  • Be clear about what you need as an employer in terms of the work that needs to get done, while keeping an open mind about different ways this could be achieved. Employers are entitled to expect the performance they need and is outlined in the employment agreement. This may reduce the risk of misunderstanding or resentment, especially if it becomes necessary to terminate the person’s employment.
  • Make any reasonable workplace accommodations as would be the case with any physical illness or disability. This may include flexible working, time off for treatment, or a modified role.
  • Ensure appropriate sensitivities around disclosure and information sharing. Employers must maintain confidentially and privacy in line with an employee’s wishes and legal requirements.
  • Value the insights people with experience of mental health problems can bring. Often they learn a lot about themselves and others through their challenges and experience.

What Works

The Mental Health Foundation’s What Works report describes the wide-spread benefits of including and supporting people with experience of mental illness.

This report identifies critical factors that enable and sustain the open employment of such people, from both the employees’ and the employers’ perspectives. It includes real-life stories from workplaces where employers have successfully managed situations with employees who have experienced mental distress.

For more information:

For help knowing how to talk to someone experiencing mental distress, see this Like Minds, Like Mine project, Open Minds.

For concerns around suicide risk see the Mental Health Foundation’s suicide fact sheet.

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