Employees with poor mental health present two key challenges for employers: intangibility and concealment. Employers may not know poor mental health exists because they cannot see it and employees may even be covering it up. So how should employers manage poor mental health when they don’t even know it exists?
Many people with poor mental health can be ‘high functioning’ – they don’t appear to have a mental health issue. Depression is a classic example. People on the autistic spectrum, as well as people with other conditions, can also appear to have good mental health. Employers cannot tell who has poor mental health and who does not. Additionally, not all employees with poor mental health – whether high functioning or not – will speak up about their mental health issues and seek help. Half employee employees aren’t willing to talk about their mental health at work and a third or more will lie to cover it up.
Employers should not assume that because employees don’t appear to have mental health issues and because they don’t ask for support that the employer need not take action. There are many reasons why employers must act, the most obvious of which is to ensure employees who have mental health issues (whether the employer knows of them or not) do not become distressed.
In an employer of 1,000 people, 250 or more employees are likely to have a mental health issue each year. It may be worthwhile noting managers are more likely to have mental health issues than junior employees. With half of employees keeping their mental health issues to themselves, in this notional 1,000-strong employer, 125 employees won’t ask for help but might need it. So, how can employers help this hidden but significant proportion of the workforce?
A strategic, structured and systematic approach to mental health should be taken. Key elements of any such approach to mental health should include a mental health policy, mental health risk assessments and mental health consultations.
Policy: A mental health policy should include three key elements: a statement of intent; the organisation and management structure as it relates to mental health; and the arrangements (the practices and procedures that will be put in place to implement the policy). Writing, communicating and enforcing a mental health policy can help start to shape the mental health culture of the organisation. It lets employees know their employer is prepared and able to support them, and has put in place the means to do so.
Risk assessments: Mental health risk assessments should be undertaken to protect employees from mental harm. Hazards, effects and controls are mostly intangible. Employers must develop the capability to undertake mental health risk assessments, especially in determining which risks to assess. As with all risk assessments, they must be suitable and sufficient. Employers must determine the mental health hazards that affect their employees and put in place adequate control measures. A method of checking that risk assessments have been properly undertaken, properly implemented and are proving effective must also be established.
Consultations: Workforce consultations are an incredibly useful means of driving improvements in the workplace. Consultations must be undertaken with employees who are not known to have mental health issues, as well as employees who are. Group and individual consultations are necessary. Consultations can take many forms, including using consultation and steering groups, engagement events, engagement surveys and meeting employees on an individual basis.
In taking a strategic, structured and systematic approach to mental health, employers do not require employees to divulge their mental health issues, overcoming the issues of intangibility and concealment. However, taking such an approach will demonstrate to all employees their employer is pro-mental health, and is ready and able to support those employees with mental health issues as and when they feel like talking.