Managing mental health in the workplace: advice for managers

mental health

Line managers are faced with numerous responsibilities relating to the guidance, support, development, discipline and performance of employees, and also hold shared responsibility for ensuring the employer’s duty of care for the welfare of their staff is delivered. Added to this, the increasing recognition of the prevalence of mental health issues and workplace stress means that line managers are required to have greater awareness of how to manage mental health in the workplace.

Recognising mental health difficulties

Mental health refers to an individual’s psychological and emotional wellbeing and the way they can use their cognitive and emotional capacity to deal with life demands in a satisfactory way. This wellbeing can be disrupted or challenged by a range of factors that impact an individual’s ability to cope with the demands of life; these include neurological and biological factors, as well as the impact of distressing social or environmental circumstances.

One in every four people in the UK experience mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, mood, addiction, personality and eating disorders. Signs and symptoms for mental health difficulties vary depending on the nature and extent of the condition but it is useful for managers to be aware of some of the signs and symptoms that may indicate a mental health problem:

  • Mood swings or personality change;
  • Low mood or feeling sad;
  • Self-harm or suicidal thinking or behaviour;
  • Reduced cognitive function in thought processes, memory, concentration, reasoning or decision making;
  • Difficulty understanding or relating to circumstances or other people;
  • Detachment from reality (delusions), paranoia, hallucinations;
  • Excessive anger, aggression or violent behaviour;
  • Increased intake of alcohol, tobacco, drugs or medication;
  • Withdrawal and isolation, lack of interest or motivation;
  • Tearfulness, irritability or excessive tiredness.

These factors indicate that an individual may be going through some form of difficulty, which may or may not relate to a mental health problem. Recognising when an employee is experiencing such issues and offering sensitive acknowledgement and support can greatly benefit their recovery, enabling them to make use of available support strategies.

Providing management support for employees

Line managers are the primary point of contact for an employee experiencing difficulties and the support they offer is essential to nurture an employee’s ongoing wellbeing. There are a number of ways that line managers can effectively engage with employees in distress and offer constructive support:

  • Respond in a calm and open manner, showing empathy and understanding.
  • Provide a private place to talk, allowing a support person for the employee to be present during talks if the employee wishes.
  • Listen without judgement and avoid making assumptions.
  • Reassure the employee that their job is not at risk and that they are an important member of the team.
  • Ask open questions, for example, how are things going at the moment? Or, what or who would help you to feel safer or calmer?
  • Identify what may be helpful for the employee, such as taking a break or continuing with their work, or perhaps going home or seeking medical attention.
  • Differentiate between what requires immediate attention and what is important; initiate a plan and clear steps to address urgent issues.
  • Reassure the employee about confidentiality and explain the strict conditions on which this may need to be broken, such as a threat to harm themselves or others.
  • If the individual does appear distressed, disorientated, highly agitated, despondent, lacking control or you have any concern for their welfare, arrange for a trusted person to accompany them home or to a medical professional and remain with them until they are more settled state or are receiving medical care.
  • Sensitively follow up with the individual to find out how they are doing and identify what further realistic support can be offered, but avoid becoming overly involved, taking care to maintain professional boundaries.

Importantly, managers should also seek advice from HR advisers, as well as their employee assistance programme (EAP) where one is available and particularly if the manager does not feel they are in a position to support the employee in distress.

Managers can benefit from consultancy and support from the EAP, giving them the opportunity to access coaching on, for example, how to intervene constructively, fairly and consistently to help employees, as well as delivering day-to-day support that will ensure line managers understand their own boundaries and what is appropriate support for an employee in crisis or distress. Importantly, an EAP will also be able to advise the line manager on how to make a referral to the EAP to enable an employee to access the most relevant services and support available. 

Promoting a positive work environment

Alongside offering constructive support for an employee suffering from mental health issues, line managers have a proactive role to play when it comes to establishing a positive work environment that enhances and sustains a healthy culture. Providing a positive workplace for all employees can significantly benefit the growth and development of a company, improving productivity, reducing conflict and increasing employee engagement.

Line managers can promote this positive work environment in a number of ways:

  • Be aware of negative or judgemental language and terminology.
  • Talk to employees in a matter-of-fact way; there is no reason to treat mental health issues differently to any other work related concern.
  • Talk to team members openly and sensitively without breaking confidentiality.
  • Encourage and support a work environment that promotes openness, understanding and respect for mental health issues.
  • Establish a culture that does not tolerate harassment or discrimination.
  • Address gossip or negative behaviour immediately and directly.
  • Have a policy to make reasonable adjustments when required, and make it happen in practice.
  • Regularly and consistently encourage and promote healthy work / life practices, promoting an environment where all employees, where possible, can take advantage of flexible hours, working from home, or job sharing.

But naturally, the role of a line manager doesn’t end there. Taking into consideration the support required, for example, for an employee who is returning to work after an absence caused by mental health issues, is vital too to effectively manage mental health in the workplace.

Here, ensuring their return is carried out in a planned, manageable and supportive manner will help to ensure it is successful in the longer term and that the culture created by offering consistent constructive support for employees and promoting a positive work environment will mean that line managers are better equipped to manage mental health.