Five ways an employer can support employees with mental health and wellbeing

Mental health awareness week provides a welcomed opportunity to remind ourselves of the continued importance of supporting mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.

Employers are well positioned to provide and promote a mentally healthy environment, encourage people to access support early for a faster recovery and even stopping preventable issues.

Employer duties toward mental health and wellbeing

Employers have a duty of care toward their employees, a duty to provide a safe working environment and a duty to prevent foreseeable injury. They must carry out risk assessments and ensure that employees are able to work safely and healthily. They must protect employees from discrimination and make reasonable adjustments to support employees living with a disability.

Many employers consider how they can be proactive and take steps to help improve and promote good mental health and wellbeing. Support with mental wellbeing in the workplace can help to reduce the severity, duration and quantity of mental ill health issues that may arise and can also lead to a happier and more dedicated team of staff.

Where managers may support those with physical ill health regularly, they may not feel as confident with how to approach and support someone suffering with mental ill health. For this reason, it is wise to spend time thinking about how the mental wellbeing of employees may be better supported and how managers may be better equipped to support them.

Spotting the signs

The earlier an employer is aware that someone is struggling with mental ill health, the sooner they may be able to step in and offer support which may prevent it from becoming more serious. There may not always be obvious signs that someone is struggling and so general advice is to have regular one-to-ones with employees in an environment which feels private and safe to speak in. However, some signs of mental ill health (and stress) include:

  • changes in behaviour, mood and interactions with others
  • changes in their performance and standard of work
  • appearing tired, anxious, withdrawn or reduced interest
  • changes in appetite, increased smoking, drinking alcohol or taking drugs
  • higher than normal absences or lateness.

Providing support

Employers and managers are not expected to be experts in mental health; however it is advisable for employers to be aware and certainly to know where they can direct themselves and their employees to for further support, preferably both internally and externally.

A good wellbeing strategy can help to embed a positive culture across an organisation and build confidence amongst employees to have open conversations around mental health, breaking any stigmas and empowering people with a long-term mental health issue or disability to thrive in work.

Five ways to support mental health and wellbeing in the workplace

Here are five ways in which employers can use HR approaches to begin to form a wellbeing strategy and be ready to support employees who may be experiencing mental health issues.

  1. Culture

It is often the case that people struggling with their mental health will not tell their manager about it until they need time off work because of it. Creating an open culture and dialogue about mental health and wellbeing is therefore an important place to start.

Organisations are advised to send a clear signal to staff that their mental health matters and that being open about any challenges will lead to support, not discrimination.

Culture change is a long-term strategy and doesn’t materialise overnight. Taking initial proactive steps is important, but maintaining the message and following through when the crucial time comes is vitally important.

Below are four (of the many) ways in which culture may be adapted:

  • Information and sources of support: Permanent sources, such as an information board or intranet site, which discuss the importance of mental wellbeing and directs employees to both internal and external support are an effective way of educating the workforce and more crucially for making support accessible at all times whilst removing the barrier of having to ask for help for those who feel unable to. This can also demonstrate that the organisation advocates awareness and support of its employees who may be struggling and can encourage positive conversation about dealing with mental health and recovery.
  • Welfare opt-in scheme: Much like an emergency contact, employers may consider building into an induction programme a request to have the details of a trusted person who the employer can contact if they should have concerns about an employee’s mental wellbeing or if something particularly stressful or potentially triggering has happened at work (such as a suspension or redundancy announcement). Involving a trusted family member or friend when there are concerns can strengthen an employee’s support network and help to ensure their safety at a time when they may be struggling to look after themselves.
  • Regular catch ups: Regular one-to-ones provides a routine opportunity to check how each person is doing and to learn about any sources of unhealthy levels of stress or anxiety which may be manifesting – both in work and in home life too if they are willing to talk about it. Regular group meetings can also put mental health and wellbeing on the routine agenda. Check-ins such as this can:
    • promote open dialogue and embed positive attitudes and behaviours
    • help to normalise conversations about mental health
    • help staff to think more about their own and colleagues’ mental health and what factors can affect this.
  • Positive leadership: Managers should consider developing an approach which encourages and supports a culture of teamwork, collaboration and information-sharing. They should implement robust policies on topics such as bullying and harassment, equality diversity and inclusion and stress at work and ensuring that these are well publicised and adhered to. They may also look to provide initiatives and benefits that encourage healthy lifestyle choices, including exercising and socialising to boost morale and mental wellbeing, such as lunchtime walking clubs. These three different tangents can all help to build inclusivity, ensure fairness, avoid unnecessary conflict and promote positive behaviours.
  1. Mental health champions and first aiders

Employees can volunteer to undertake a training course of the same name. At these courses, they are taught to spot the signs of mental health issues, offer initial help to colleagues and to guide a person towards further appropriate support.

They are not therapists but become an internal source of support. They understand how to listen, reassure and respond, even in a crisis and are sometimes able to reach out to someone before a crisis happens.

  1. Wellness Action Plans (WAPs)

Staff who have previously experienced mental ill health may find it beneficial to develop a Wellness Action Plan which can be used to identify:

  • triggers, symptoms and early warning signs
  • how mental ill health may impact performance
  • what support they need from their manager.

The charity Mind has a practical guide on creating Wellness Action Plans. Line managers can suggest the idea of an action plan to specific individuals as may be appropriate but can also promote the concept generally to all staff.

  1. EAP

An Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) is typically first and foremost a helpline service delivered by trained counsellors who assist in the resolution of a wide range of concerns that may affect an employee’s performance at work. Typically this would include issues such as:

  • personal matters: eg health, relationships, family, financial, debt, emotional, legal, anxiety, alcohol, drugs, bereavement and more.
  • work matters: eg work demands, fairness at work, working relationships, harassment and bullying, personal and interpersonal skills, work/life balance, stress and other related issues.

The service may refer an employee to other sources of specific support as part of the programme’s offering, such as a course of face-to-face counselling. EAP schemes are entirely confidential and free for the employee to access, and good EAP schemes can be found at a nominal rate per employee, per year, to the employer.

A Court of Appeal ruling recently stated: “Any employer offering a confidential counselling service with access to treatment is unlikely to be found in breach of the duty of care.” This would of course still require the employer to act on any advice provided through related occupational health services and to take steps to provide a safe working environment – but this is clearly a valuable benefit to offer for a huge number of reasons.

  1. Adjustments

Making adjustments to support people with mental ill health is always advisable. When mental ill health amounts to a disability, there is a specific legal duty on employers which requires them to put ‘reasonable adjustments’ in place for that individual so that difficulties which affect things such as their ability to perform or attend work may be overcome or minimised. The aim is to ensure they are not at a disadvantage because of the disability, as far as reasonably possible.

Some examples of reasonable adjustments made in respect of mental ill health include: temporary or flexible working patterns, amending hours to avoid anti-social hours or heavy traffic, lighter duties, more frequent breaks, working from home, moving away from noisy or other sensory stimulating areas, amending or softening procedures, for example to allow written correspondence or family support etc.

Adjustments may be anything that can be reasonably provided, removed or adapted to help improve performance and attendance. Improved performance and attendance can be highly beneficial to both an individual’s self-esteem but also the morale and commitment of the rest of the workforce and the overall performance of a business.

We’re here to help

Join us for our upcoming webinar, “Prioritising Employee Wellbeing,” where we’ll guide business owners, leaders, and HR practitioners on putting employee health and wellbeing at the core of their strategy.




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