Managing mental health in the workplace: Advice for employers and employees

Managing mental health in the workplace: Advice for employers and employees

Managing mental health in the workplace: Advice for employers and employees By Ann Arnold for Best Practice.  Available from <> [January 30, 2016]

The start of another work year will sit especially heavily for some. So how can managers respond to mental health issues in the workplace?

Imagine a call centre employee, we'll call her Sasha. She's been "snapping" with her clients. Sasha's manager knows she has a mental health condition, and has been struggling lately with medication side effects.

A "workplace adjustment" is negotiated. Sasha will take a break from dealing with clients for two hours a day, and do admin work instead.

The manager assures Sasha this is a temporary arrangement, she is a valued employee, and the goal is to get her back into her original role as soon as she feels ready. They'll catch up in a fortnight to review her situation.

This is textbook: how a manager who is aware of mental health conditions, but not frightened of them, might respond.

A less skilled manager might say: "I'm not a counsellor. I'm not a psychiatrist. I can't deal with this."

Relax — you don't need to be those things, says Eliza Oakley, a lead facilitator with a program called Mindful Employer, which delivers workplace training on mental health issues.

Managers need to build the confidence to ask employees how they are. There is no diagnosis required, no qualifications, just as there would not be with a broken limb.

Some advice for employers

DO: Observe employees' changes — lateness, mood, perhaps a dishevelled appearance, performance — and ask if everything is OK. Managers often fear that they are overstepping the mark. But there is nothing wrong with checking in with someone.

DON'T: Presume anything about the sort of answer you will get. It might take several conversations before an employee says "Well, actually ..." If there are performance issues, still always start with asking: "How are you?" A genuine concern, built up over time, is more likely to make an employee comfortable to disclose.

DO: Step in early and demonstrate you care. Don't wait until a behaviour change has affected the whole team. Early support is key.

DON'T: Make judgments about the person's response. The person might say their divorce is troubling them. They might say they are not feeling motivated. That requires support.

DO: Offer referral, without requiring the person to seek help. "I notice you're angry," an employer might say. "Are you OK? Can we help?" It's a manager's job to refer the person to help, but it's a soft referral, Ms Oakley says. It could just a reminder that there is an employee assistance program for support on any issue. But managers should leave it up to the person to choose.

DON'T: Go quickly into performance management mode. Ms Oakley says the traditional approach to lateness, unfinished reports or absence is that "it's not acceptable; we need to get a performance management plan in place". But that should not be the starting point.

DO: Put mental health on meeting agendas, refer to it in e-newsletters, talk about it with occupational health and safety teams. Familiarity will reduce stigma.

DON'T: Lead a workplace culture where careless comments are tolerated. "If someone in a tea room says: 'Jim is away because he's depressed but he's really just a slacker', pull them up on it," says Ms Oakley. Ditto with the person who is feeling moody and jokes that they are having a bipolar day.

DO: If an employee says they have an illness, listen and ask: "What do you need?" Be aware that often disclosure is a huge step for the person to take. Assure them that they are a valued employee and that you will work together on the next steps. Be aware that some mental ill-health is a one-off, and for others it's ongoing but cyclical. It's only an issue, when it's an issue.

And some advice for employees

Prepare yourself before approaching your manager with your health concerns. You are only obligated to disclose if it is a safety issue at work, or you're unable to meet the requirements of the job.

Disclosing may be difficult. Prior to the conversation, organise someone to debrief with.

Communicate what you might need, whether it is, "I sometimes might need to take leave," or "I'll need Wednesday afternoons from 3:00pm for the next six weeks to see my specialist."

What's in it for employers?

Better workplace mental health improves the bottom line. A 2014 return on investment analysis by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that for every dollar spent on creating a mentally healthy workplace, there would be a $2.30 benefit to the organisation.

Mental health is part of an employer's safety obligations. And because mental ill health is classified as a disability, it's a requirement under the Anti-Discrimination Act to provide a workplace adjustment if required.

Ms Oakley says employers could learn from the example of Ben, an insurance firm employee, and his boss. Ben lives with an ongoing mental illness — "and he's a gun".

A couple of times a year Ben may become unwell. He arranges to have his contract temporarily altered for about four weeks, so that he works one day less.

Every time Ben and his manager catch up, the manager asks "How's things? How's it going?" Ben knows that he can say: "My focus isn't great at the moment, so for the next few days I might take longer to get my usual workload completed."

It's an ongoing building of mutual trust and respect. And it means the insurance company retains a valued employee.

Managing mental health in the workplace: Advice for employers and employees By Ann Arnold for Best Practice.  Available from <> [January 30, 2016]

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