Despite the fact that 1 in 6 workers experience a mental health problem, in many workplaces mental health can be seen as an ‘add on’ that only rears its head when there is a problem with sickness absence, discrimination or grievance proceedings.
Mental health fits under diversity and must be considered under disability discrimination, in line with the Equality Act. But with all these laws and policies in place, how many workplaces actually have a proactive policy for ensuring people stay mentally healthy at work? How many consider the wellbeing of their workforce as a business need in itself? Well, research by the Shaw Trust tells us that 72% of workplaces do not have a stress and mental health policy. It’s safe to assume that in many organisations, mental health is very much an Equality Act issue, rather resting in its proper place as a fundamental HR priority.
For me, restricting mental health to the Equality Act or diversity issues simply isn’t enough. Mental health problems are the second most common complaint among employees, some of it directly caused by excessive stress, pressure and problems at work. Failing to look at mental health as part of a holistic approach to people management is misplaced, and even counterproductive. I see managing the wellbeing of employees as the bread and butter of HR practice - it’s all about good communication and good management, to get the best out of your workforce so they can deliver for your business. Seeing mental health purely through the lens of discrimination law misses the point.
Tackling discrimination is not just about a set of legal duties on employers. It’s about changing the negative culture around stress and mental health that exists in many workplaces. The majority of employees feel unable to speak up about how they are coping for fear of the consequences. Mind research shows this is because people fear being deemed ‘less capable’ than colleagues, or have been treated poorly after disclosing issues in the past. Whatever the cause, this silence benefits no one. Employees’ difficulties may spiral into health crises, leading to under-performance or sickness absence, with employers none the wiser as to the true cause. HR professionals can do little to mitigate the impact this has while mental health is still the issue that dare not speak its name.
A healthy and productive workforce is one where employees can raise difficulties without fear of prejudice, so managers can respond promptly to nip problems in the bud. One person I know of disclosed her depression and her manager helped with work prioritisation, regular 1-1s and flexible hours, which aided her recovery and enabled her to stay in work. This response was not complex, or even mental-health specific – its success came down to good communication and good management.
HR professionals can do much to shape the culture of an organisation and foster openness about mental health. Raising awareness and promoting the available support channels shows employees that their wellbeing is valued, and that disclosure will lead to support. For managers, HR should provide training on how to spot the signs of mental distress, and offer on-going advice for those supporting employees with mental health issues, reminding them that solutions can often be straightforward.
If mental health becomes less about discrimination law and more about employee engagement and good management, businesses and their staff will all be better off.