As the country prepares for tighter restrictions to both social and professional activity as a result of rising coronavirus cases in the UK, employers need to be particularly mindful of the mental health of their employees. With Government guidance to work from home where possible, remote working looks set to continue for some time to come, employers will have to engage with the challenge of keeping colleagues connected, and be mindful of the risks that some may find the experience isolating or unsettling.
The statistics tell their own story: a survey by the Royal College of Psychiatrists of 1,300 mental-health doctors from across the UK found that 43% had seen a rise in urgent cases while 45% reported a reduction in routine appointments. It is likely that employees with pre-existing conditions have stayed away from their doctors and some employees may have developed mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression as a direct result of the pandemic. Employers need to be alive to these issues and put in place measures to ensure employees' mental health is protected to the best of their ability. Whilst many businesses are likely to have existing policies in place, these may require careful review in light of the pandemic and managers may need additional training on how to manage remote working teams.
So, what do managers need to be aware of?
Managers should treat all employees, who might experience mental health issues, in exactly the same way as if they had physical health problems. This means compassion, support and adjustment. Why is this?
Firstly, employers have many statutory (written in law in England and Wales) obligations to employees. As a manager, you have to protect your employees' health, safety and welfare. You have to take reasonable care to provide a safe place to work and a safe system of working. If your employees are disabled, you need to consider making adjustments to alleviate the effect of any disability they might experience. These requirements in law are just as relevant to mental as to physical health conditions.
Secondly though, this is obviously not just about what the law requires. Businesses succeed thanks to their people. Good employers know if they look after their people, their organisation will benefit. Sickness absence isn’t good for anyone, and teams will function better and increase their output if they are provided with the right support to be productive.
So how do you know if you are treating mental and physical health in exactly the same way?
This will depend on the type of organisation and sector you work in. Developing a bespoke approach is key and there are some important questions you or your organisation should ask:
As a manager, are you aware of mental health issues, generally and as they relate to your organisation?
A priority for any manager is to be aware of pressures affecting their team and to think about how they might be addressed. This isn’t about looking at productivity reports, but a question of taking the time to talk to your colleagues. You should be checking in with them regularly, which will help you to identify issues early.
On the flip side, are you enquiring, but respectful?
Ideally employer and employee should be able to have a frank and honest discussion with each other, but how much detail do you really need to know? Employees might not wish or feel able to share every detail of their situation. It should be enough to know they need support, and broadly what sort of help you can provide. In some situations, you may need some medical back up to this if employees are taking time off, in exactly the same way this would be provided if they broke their leg or were diagnosed with a physical illness that meant having time out.
Does your employee handbook give the same air time to mental as well as physical health?
It's best practice for employers to state clearly to employers how they treat sickness absence, flexible working, dignity at work. Are these sensitive and appropriate to emotional wellbeing? Do the documents encourage a culture of openness about this topic?
Look out for what else is available
Think creatively about ways you can offer support and set a good example. Employee assistance programmes can offer a fantastic resource, including virtual or in person medical appointments, access to a confidential phone counselling service, resources about health and managing stress. And remember, empowering managers is important but of course they aren’t a trained medical professional, and making sure your employees get access to specialist help is important.
Beyond the law, it is what happens in practice that counts. Mental Health Awareness Week is an opportunity for you to pause and review how your place of work is supporting health and wellbeing, and allowing your teams to flourish.
Note: Hugh and Meriel are blogging about UK law, but we have specialists working with employees in many jurisdictions globally and protecting their mental health is a key area of focus for our whole team. For more information, please contact a member of our employment team.
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