Mental health issues have a significant impact on employee wellbeing and are a major cause of long-term absence from work. Employers should promote good mental health and provide support for employees who are experiencing mental ill health including anxiety or depression.
This factsheet gives an overview of mental health issues – which affect one in four people at some point in their lives - in the workplace. It provides guidance on supporting employees’ mental health at work, including spotting early signs of mental ill health, training line managers, and promoting a good work-life balance. The factsheet emphasises the importance of making adjustments at work and offers guidance on providing specialist clinical and professional advice for employees who need it.
What is mental health?
We all have mental health, just as we all have physical health. Both change throughout our lives, and like our bodies, our minds can become unwell. The World Health Organisation describes mental health as ‘a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community’.
Our health and well-being surveys show that mental health issues are a major cause of long-term sickness absence from work and our report Employee Outlook: Focus on mental health in the workplace found that more than three people in ten have experienced mental ill health while in employment. So it’s likely that we’ll be either affected ourselves by a mental health issue or be supporting someone who is.
Mental ill health can range from anxiety and depression (the most common mental health conditions) to severe mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. The websites of organisations such as Mind and Rethink Mental Illness describe the most common physical and psychological aspects of different mental health conditions.
People with the same mental health condition can experience different symptoms, and to a different extent. This means that workplace support needs to be tailored to an individual’s specific needs.
There's a strong business case for organisations to promote good physical and good mental health for all staff. Actively promoting staff well-being leads to greater staff productivity, morale and retention, and reduced sickness absence and 'presenteeism'.
Supporting employees’ mental health at work
Employers should promote good mental health as well as providing support when an issue emerges. Listen to our UK podcast on promoting and supporting good mental health.
The culture of the organisation, and the extent of awareness and training around mental health, will affect whether or not employees and line managers have open and supportive conversations. Employers should take the key steps below to better support employees and demonstrate their commitment to promoting positive mental health.
Developing people managers’ skills
Good people management can help manage and prevent stress which can be linked to common mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. Managers who provide clear objectives, feedback and support to their staff and proactively manage conflict when it occurs can help to create positive working environments which foster employee well-being and resilience.
Our guide Managing for sustainable employee engagement highlights research showing the behaviours managers need to exhibit to engage staff and prevent burnout.
Training for line managers will help them to spot early warning signs of mental distress and enhance their confidence to have an effective conversation with employees who may be experiencing a mental health issue.
Our revised joint guidance with UK mental health charity Mind, People managers’ guide to mental health, contains information, practical advice and templates to help managers facilitate conversations about stress and poor mental health. It also sets out the practical steps that employers can take to create a mentally healthy workplace and help prevent poor psychological well-being in the first place.
Spotting early signs of mental health issues
Employers and managers should be alert to the early signs of stress and mental ill health, and know how to respond and signpost to support services. Early intervention can help prevent issues from escalating, but employers should not give advice about a mental health issue as they are rarely qualified to do so. The websites of Mind and Rethink Mental Illness give information on potential signs of mental ill health.
Signposting to support
It’s important that line managers have the knowledge and confidence to signpost an employee to more expert sources of support, for example recommending a GP visit or referral to occupational health. Various UK mental health charities (see Useful contacts) also provide helpful resources for individuals, carers and employers.
Increasing awareness of how to access employer-funded support
Employers who offer an employee assistance programme or counselling services should ensure employees know how to access them.
Review job design and workloads
Our research shows that unmanageable workloads are the main cause of work-related stress. Providing meaningful work with realistic timescales will help to manage the risk of work-related stress which can tip over into poor mental health. See our factsheet on job design.
Promote awareness of mental health issues across the workforce
Promoting awareness and educating the whole workforce about mental health can help to reduce the stigma and replace common myths with facts.
Promote work-life balance
Long-hours working is not a sustainable way of operating and will take its toll on people. Striking the appropriate balance between work and personal life means people remain refreshed and productive. See our factsheet on working time.
Offer flexible working
Offering a more flexible working arrangement can be an adjustment for someone who is returning from work following mental ill health, and it can also help to prevent stress if someone wants a better work-life balance to suit their individual circumstances.
Address the risk of suicide
Organisations should also have a strategy to help prevent the risk of suicide as part of their health and well-being programme. Suicide at work is unusual, but it happens and the impact on colleagues can be traumatic, so organisations also need to have a framework in place to support people.
Making mental health a part of wider wellbeing at work
A wellbeing policy should cover both physical and mental health. It should:
- Begin with a clear statement which commits the organisation to developing a working environment that promotes employee health and wellbeing.
- Be championed by senior management.
- Be kept under constant review.
- Outline the responsibilities of key stakeholders including HR, occupational health and employees.
- Set out the available advice, support and training to enhance employee wellbeing.
- Incorporate the process for evaluating the effectiveness of all wellbeing initiatives.
An organisation’s approach to well-being should treat people as individuals with varying needs and who require tailored support. Find out more in our wellbeing at work factsheet.
Due to fear of discrimination, or for other personal reasons, potential employees may disclose a mental health issue in their application or at the interview stage. The organisation should:
- Make clear, at the recruitment stage, that it's willing to make adjustments for applicants and that this policy includes people with a mental health condition.
- Ensure all employees understand the concept of adjustment and that managers have the confidence to discuss suitable adjustments.
When drawing up the job description and person specification, care should be taken to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate people with a mental health issue. Steps should be taken to distinguish between essential and desirable requirements for the job and focus on what is to be achieved rather than how.
As someone with a mental health issue may not have attended an interview for some time, the organisation should:
- Allow an applicant to be accompanied and/or to have additional time to undertake a selection test.
- Appreciate that someone with a mental health condition may understandably have gaps in their employment history.
- Provide the appropriate environment to try to ensure an applicant is able to demonstrate fully their ability to do the job.
Adjustments at work
A manager needs to have a supportive conversation with the employee about how their mental health condition impacts their work and what adjustments could help. There should be a two-way discussion about the nature of the adjustment required, but colleagues should not be told the medical reason behind any decisions.
Some examples of more typical workplace adjustments for line managers and employees to explore and agree together include:
- Adjustments to working hours or patterns.
- Adjusting someone’s duties if some cause too much pressure.
- Providing a mentor.
- Temporary part-time hours.
- Working from home.
- Job sharing.
- Minimising noise or providing a quiet working space.
- Increasing supervision and support.
It's wise to document the reasonable adjustments that have been agreed.
Useful contacts and further reading
Books and reports
RACE, M-C, and FURNHAM, A. (2014) Mental illness at work: a manager’s guide to identifying, managing and preventing psychological problems in the workplace. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan
SHIFT. (2007) Line managers’ resource: a practical guide to managing and supporting people with mental health problems in the workplace. London: Department of Health and Health and Safety Executive.
BASKA, M. (2019) Employees still scared to open up about mental health, says survey. People Management (online). 13 August.
CHURCHILL, F. (2019) Workers call in physically sick to hide mental ill-health, poll reveals. People Management (online). 29 August.
DONALDSON-FEILDER, E. and LEWIS, R. (2016) Taking the lead on mental health: the role of leaders and line managers. Occupational Health & Wellbeing. Vol 68, No 7, July. pp16-17.
ROBERTSON-HART, S. (2014) Mental health: returning to work. Occupational Health. Vol 66, No 3, March. pp24-25.
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Members and People Management subscribers can see articles on the People Management website.
This factsheet was last updated by Lisa Ayling, solicitor and employment law specialist, and by Rachel Suff.