How NOT to deal with mental health at work

  • Occupational Health
Employee with head in hands sat at desk. Other employer in background looks angry.
Gavin Scarr-Hall - Director of Health & Safety at Peninsula

Gavin Scarr Hall, Director of Health and Safety

(Last updated )

When HSE says that one in four people will experience a mental health issue at some point in their lives, there’s a high chance it affects at least one person in your workplace.

But while employers may try to support an employee with the best of intentions, they don’t always get it right.

And to mark World Mental Health Day, now is a good time to remind ourselves how to be the best mental health champions for our staff. And what better place to start than learning what not to do if you suspect your employee is dealing with a mental health issue…

Mental health can be a tricky topic to navigate with your employee. But you can make it easier by making sure you avoid common pitfalls like…

Leaving your employee to deal with it themselves

If you suspect your employee might be dealing with a mental health issue, approaching them about it might seem like a scary and invasive thing to do.

But one of the worst things you can do is ignore it.

You might worry about bringing up an issue that you feel is “none of your business”. But when it’s an issue that affects your business, it certainly is.

Opening up about a mental health issue takes a lot of courage, and many employees may not feel comfortable talking to their manager or anyone at work about it. However, problems will often fester and grow because staff suffer in silence. What starts as a couple of missed deadlines might escalate to absenteeism and mistakes (that start slowly adding up).

It’s why you have to be the one to make the first move. If you think something might be wrong, you have to raise it with your employee. This doesn’t have to be an awkward conversation. You can keep it simple and to the point. And most importantly, let your employee know you’re there to support and not judge.

What might make this conversation more than just a bit uncomfortable, however, is…

Having a mental health chat in a public place

Mental health is a sensitive topic and you’re unlikely to get your employee to open up with all their colleagues in earshot.

So, do your employee the courtesy of taking them to a private and quiet place where you can have a chat openly and without fear of being overheard.

If your staff work remotely, you may want to meet up somewhere outside of the workplace where you both feel comfortable having the chat. It might be that travelling to them is an option if that works for you both.

And whatever you decide, remember not to fall into the trap of…

Applying a one size fits all approach

Everyone’s different, so what works for one employee might not work for another.

Never assume that you already know how to support an employee who’s struggling with their mental health. As an example, while some employees might find that working from home helps them to cope better, others might find that isolation has the opposite effect.

Having a one-to-one discussion with your employee will help you learn how to best support them and their individual needs. Whether you need to make changes to their work environment or their workload, you’ll need to find out specifically what your employee needs from you to help them give their best.

It might even be the case that your employee doesn’t need you to make any changes. They might just want to give you the heads up about an issue they’re having to keep you in the know.

But if you do need to be proactive and take steps to support your employee, don’t be in a position where you’re…

Dealing with it by yourself

The responsibility for supporting your employee’s mental health shouldn’t solely fall on you and you shouldn’t make promises you can’t keep. Because let’s say your employee reveals something to you that raises alarms about their safety - or the safety of someone else - and they ask you not to tell anyone.

While respecting confidentiality is vital, there are times when you may have to break it.

In some situations, you may have a responsibility to report an issue. So, it’s important to make sure your employee knows this upfront.

If you do have to share anything your employee has told you with anyone else in your organisation, be transparent with your employee about this.

You should also direct them to your employee assistance programme (EAP) if you have one. Remind your employee that this is a free and confidential service you offer, where they can access free third-party support to help them tackle personal and work-related problems.

It may also be a good idea to send your employee a list of external organisations and helplines that offer specialist mental health support. Rather than helping your employee tackle their issues yourself, point them in the right direction of people who can help them. Your role is to take steps to support them in work. It’s best to leave the rest to the experts.

It’ll be easier to navigate a sensitive situation with your employee when you have a written procedure to follow. You may find yourself in a tricky situation without a roadmap by…

Not having an employee wellbeing policy

Having an employee wellbeing policy gives businesses a process to follow for managing an employee who is dealing with a mental health issue. It allows them to stay consistent in their approach and helps to de-stigmatise mental health in the workplace.

By having a policy, you show your staff that you take mental health seriously. Not only that, but you also help to normalise having open conversations about mental health at work. And in turn, this can help employees feel more comfortable to discuss their issues, instead of keeping everything to themselves.

Your policy should outline:

  • The steps your business will take to support mental health at work (and any adjustments you can make).
  • How you take steps to raise awareness about mental health (e.g. through staff training and awareness days).
  • Contact information for your mental health first aiders / nominated champions at work.

Click here to download a free wellbeing policy

To learn more about the best HR practices for managing mental health at work, you may find the following resources useful:

And for instant advice on how to manage an employee issue, tap below to speak to an expert today for free.

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