Of all the management issues you will face in the workplace, a medical certificate signing an employee off with stress, anxiety, depression, or some other form of mental illness, is guaranteed to make your heart sink. A variety of questions spring to mind: how long will the person be away? Is the workplace somehow responsible for the problem? Could you have seen it coming and done something to prevent it? What are you going to say to the person when they do come back? What, if anything, should you do now?
According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) 526,000 workers were suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety (whether long-standing or new) in 2016-2017, resulting in 12.5 million working days lost. With all companies trying to do more and more with fewer staff, it is perhaps not surprising that employees are feeling the strain. But research has also shown that the majority of people who suffer from mental illness are reluctant to tell their managers or colleagues about it, for fear of negative consequences.
What is work-related stress?
“Stress” may be defined as the physiological and psychological reaction people have when the demands placed upon them exceed their ability to cope.
In the workplace, stress-inducing situations might include:
What should you look out for?
Signs of stress that may be noticeable include:
Less obvious but potentially deadly health risks may include:
What does the law say?
Organisations have a statutory duty of care for the health and welfare of their employees. This extends to their mental as well as physical well-being. But whereas physical hazards – an unguarded blade, a toxic substance or a slippery floor – are easily identified, risks to mental health are more difficult to predict, because individuals react differently to similar situations. Stress (or anxiety or depression) is a personal response to a situation. One person may feel energised by increased responsibility or tighter deadlines, while another may crack under the strain. It is also difficult to pinpoint the precise cause of stress-related illness; personal issues such as relationship breakdowns, debt problems, bereavement or ill-health in the family may be implicated, as well as workplace issues.
Many years ago, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) published Management Standards to enable employers to assess the risks posed by workplace stress to the mental health of their employees and take steps to minimize those risks as far as reasonably practicable. These Management Standards identify six areas of “work design” which can contribute to workplace stress if they are poorly implemented:
Click on the links for guidance from the HSE on the practical steps you can take with respect to these six areas.
What should you do?
Often, managers and colleagues feel completely out of their depth around mental health issues; they worry about how the person may react, or about doing or saying the wrong thing. They don’t know how to start a conversation, even when they can see something is amiss, so they shy away from engaging with the person, hoping that the problem will somehow go away of its own accord.
Despite the difficulties, however, ignoring the warning signs or blaming matters outside the workplace is a dangerous course of action. If you notice one of your team members behaving out of character, looking tired or drained, or acting irrationally, then it is incumbent on you to do something.
A private conversation
Start by taking them into a private place and asking something like: “You don’t seem your normal self lately, is there something bothering you? Would it help to talk?”
Demonstrating concern in this way may encourage the person to open up. Alternatively, if it provokes an aggressive or defensive response, that may in itself be a sign that there is something wrong!
You could follow up with: “Is everything OK here at work? I know you’ve taken on a lot more responsibility/are working late a lot/are not interacting with the team as much as usual lately. Are you getting the support you need?”
If the person does not want to talk to you at this stage, don’t persist; just reassure them that you’re happy to listen if and when they do want to talk, or suggest they might prefer to talk to somebody else. An external person or body, like an Occupational Health practitioner or HR professional, may be easier to confide in than their immediate manager.
If the person does tell you there’s a work-related problem, don’t just shrug your shoulders and say “pull yourself together” or that nothing can be done about it. You must take the concerns seriously, and see whether any practical steps can be taken to alleviate the stress before it results in sickness absence – additional training on the new technology perhaps, or a reassignment of responsibilities if the workload is unsustainable. With the person’s consent (this is crucial, as medical issues are highly confidential), engage the rest of the team in supporting the individual through their difficulties. Thereafter, keep a watching brief on the situation, and meet with the person regularly to find out whether the interventions are helping.
Unfit to work
Once a person has been certified as unfit to work on account of any mental health issue, then you are effectively “on notice” that something needs to be done. The first step should be to conduct a return to work interview in which you discuss how the person is feeling now, try to understand what caused the problem, and consider what you can do to prevent it happening again. You cannot simply put the person straight back into the same stressful situation that has caused or contributed to mental illness before, and expect them to cope better the second time.
Remember that failure to address a health and safety risk once it has been identified is a breach of your statutory duties, and could lead to a claim of constructive dismissal or a personal injury claim, which could be extremely costly – six and even seven figure sums have been awarded in the most extreme cases, where people have been so damaged that they are unable ever to work again.
Remember also, that an identifiable mental illness such as clinical depression can qualify as a disability under the Equality Act, and trigger the duty to make reasonable adjustments in the workplace – typically a lightening of the workload, shorter hours, or provision of extra support.
Nobody expects you to be a trained counsellor or medical practitioner, or to be able to “cure” the person. But you must demonstrate understanding and support, and avoid turning a blind eye or doing anything that you can reasonably foresee having harmful consequences.
Sources of help and information
ACAS has produced many useful resources including videos and published materials relating to mental health in the workplace, which you can access here. There is also plenty of useful advice on the HSE website, as well as the online NHS Moodzone.
Your employees may also benefit from some professional support – from a Stress Counsellor, Occupational Health Practitioner, or a Confidential Helpline (if you offer Private Medical Insurance you may find that this is available as part of the package).
As for the employer, when facing difficult management situations that may cause, or be symptomatic of, workplace stress, such as: an allegation of bullying, a redundancy exercise, or a major reorganization or change programme, you would be well-advised to seek support from an HR professional. Contact me today for a confidential no-obligation chat.
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