Focusing on poor mental health in the workplace

27 November 2017

This article was featured in the December 2017/January 2018 issue of the magazine.

Danny Done, managing director at Portfolio Payroll, discusses the new guidance and proposals

Numerous campaigns and events are encouraging increased awareness around the issue of poor mental health at work. World Mental Health Day, held on 10 October, is an annual event that seeks to raise awareness of the importance of understanding mental health conditions. The focus on this year’s campaign was on mental health in the workplace. Employee absence already costs UK businesses over £12.7 billion each year and mental health conditions, such as stress, are being increasingly diagnosed. Employers need to be proactively considering how they can support positive mental health at work, whilst understanding how to manage mental health conditions.

To aid employers, ACAS (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) released new guidance on managing employees who are suffering from poor mental health. ACAS highlights the pivotal role of a manager in supporting employee wellbeing; although they are responsible for monitoring workload and setting targets, a manager should have pastoral qualities. Importantly, managers should be approachable and able to encourage employees to communicate with them if they are experiencing difficulty.

In many cases, employees may be reluctant to start conversations with their managers about a mental health problem. Managers should be alert for signs indicating an employee is struggling with their mental health, such as changes in their normal behaviour or an increase in sickness absence. Once these signs are identified, ACAS suggests managers should take the lead and arrange a meeting with the employee as soon as possible.   

The meeting should be held in a private space with the employee given as much time as they need to talk. Managers should go in to the meeting open-minded but prepared to respond to what the employee may say. Where the employee is not prepared to talk, the meeting can provide the opportunity for the manager to let the employee know that they can be approached at any time with any concerns.

...alert for signs indicating an employee is struggling with their mental health...

Where the employee is absent because of their mental health, ACAS suggests managers should agree a plan for keeping in contact with the employee. Any contact should be supportive and positive, ensuring the employee does not feel overwhelmed or harassed. A return to work should also be managed sensitively and appropriately. Consideration can be given to a phased return to assist a smooth transition and a return to work interview should be arranged to welcome the employee back and update them on anything they have missed during their absence.

Alongside the ACAS guidance, a new report has found that long-term mental health conditions cause up to 300,000 people to leave their jobs each year. The Thriving at work report (, commissioned by the prime minister, looks at ways to create a culture change around the issue of mental health. The report sets out a ten-year vision for employers, with the long-term aim of establishing a more open, understanding and aware society. If their vision is successful, it is believed the number of people having to leave work because of poor mental health will be reduced by around 100,000 each year; putting this in line with the number who leave because of their physical health.

The report is made up of a number of proposals and ‘mental health core standards’. These core standards are best practice steps that employers can take within their business. These include: producing, implementing and communicating a mental health at work plan; developing mental health awareness in the business; encouraging open conversations; providing good working conditions that allow development; promoting effective people management; and monitoring mental health and wellbeing among staff.

There are also a set of ‘enhanced’ standards. These go further than the core standards and can be put in place by those businesses that wish to improve their mental health culture and lead the way on this issue. Enhanced standards including demonstrating accountability, increasing transparency and improving disclosure.

Employers that wish to implement these standards, whether core or enhanced, will create a positive and supportive mental health culture within their business. Each standard will be implemented differently depending on factors such as resources, staff and any current steps already in place. For example, a mental health at work plan may be incorporated within an organisation’s existing mental health policy or may be created separately. The plan can set out how the business provides support and addresses mental health issues. Any workplace benefits, such as an employee assistance programme, can also be detailed within the plan.

It is widely believed that awareness and understanding of mental health needs to improve within the workplace. Small steps such as training, providing wellbeing information, putting on wellness days or even recognising initiatives such as World Mental Health Day will all contribute towards increasing understanding and creating a positive culture around mental health.

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*content correct at time of publishing