So employers of all sizes are likely to be working with staff who have a mental health problem, and they need to be able to support staff if they are affected – and manage the wider impact on staff morale and sickness absence.
This is especially important for smaller businesses, who are less able to spread out the work of an absent employee amongst their remaining staff.
Smaller employers are also less likely to have a HR specialist on the payroll, so they need to become savvier about mental health issues themselves. So what exactly can they do?
First and foremost, prevention is the key – whether that is:
– Primary prevention (promoting a healthy workforce),
– Secondary prevention (early intervention at the first signs of distress) or
– Tertiary prevention – helping employees whose mental health concerns have already become very evident.
So, how do we do this?
Develop a culture of openness and awareness before issues appear
The biggest barrier to managing stress and other mental health issues in the workplace is the reluctance of staff to discuss these issues – in fact, 67% of people with mental health problems do not tell their employer because they worry about the reaction (Time to Change survey, 2011).
However, if employees are not forthcoming, problems may only come to light later on when more serious interventions are necessary.
By creating a culture of openness and awareness of mental health issues, employers can reduce stigma, make employees feel better supported and encourage them to raise issues and concerns early before they develop into something more serious.
Upskill managers to offer support around mental health
Managerial staff in small businesses are often juggling a variety of tasks, as well as having the responsibility of making sure employees are happy and healthy. It can be a challenge to devote enough time towards supporting employee wellbeing when urgent factors such as productivity targets might seem more pressing.
By investing in training, employers can help managers to recognise the early signs, and understand what adjustments someone with a mental health condition might need.
In particular, business owners should remember not to penalise managers who have reduced productivity as a result of making adjustments for that employee, as their support will pay off in the long term.
Talk about mental health to your employees
If an employee does develop a mental health issue, it’s important to maintain an open and meaningful dialogue. Employers can often feel reluctant to talk about these issues for fear of doing or saying the wrong thing, but it’s important to know what support is needed.
Making sure there is a constant dialogue between the employee and line manager will allow employers to strike the right balance between helping the employee to still feel productive and valued, without feeling overloaded.
Provide tangible support through your employee benefits package
Employers can provide tangible support for staff through their employee benefits package. Employee assistance programmes, can help employees manage mental health conditions alongside work, whilst also offering preventative measures such as counselling to help prevent problems from becoming more serious.
If mental health issues do mean someone has to go on sick leave for 6 months or more, benefits like income protection will also provide staff with a regular replacement income. Vocational rehabilitation services are also important as they support employees’ return to work when they are ready.
A vocational rehabilitation consultant works with the employee and employer to develop a tailored and flexible plan that gradually eases the employee back into the workplace. This is especially useful for a smaller business which often won’t have a dedicated HR department or OH service.
With mental health fast rising up the agenda, it’s important that employers understand the issues and are prepared for them – both in terms of offering the right support to staff and protecting their businesses from the potential impact.
With every workplace almost certain to be affected at one time or another, now is the time for SMEs to evaluate their own policies and procedures to tackle the mental health challenge.
Joy Reymond is head of Rehabilitation Services at Unum
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