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Managing staff experiencing mental ill health

Managers deal with ill health on a regular basis. While they are usually confident in dealing with physical ill health, they may be less sure of how best to approach mental ill health. Yet it should be fairly similar, with a focus on how they can best support the team member back to work and/or to perform at their best.

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The role of a manager

Managers play a crucial role for organisations that wants to encourage strong performance and support employee wellbeing. A manager should:

  • be approachable, available and encourage staff to talk to them if they are having problems
  • tailor their management style to suit the needs of each staff member
  • monitor staff workloads, set realistic targets and be clear about priorities
  • have regular one-to-ones and catch-ups to check on how work is going, identify upcoming challenges and what support may be required.

Spot the signs of mental ill health

The earlier a manager becomes aware that a team member is experiencing mental ill health, the sooner steps can be taken to prevent it becoming more serious and provide support to help them during this period.

A manager should never make assumptions, but signs of mental ill health can include:

  • changes in usual behaviour, mood or how they interact with colleagues
  • changes in the standard of their work or focus on tasks
  • appearing tired, anxious or withdrawn and reduced interest in tasks they previously enjoyed
  • changes in appetite and/or increase in smoking and drinking
  • increase in sickness absence and/or turning up late to work.

Of course, not everyone who experiences mental ill health will exhibit obvious signs. So, it is important for a manager to regularly ask team members 'how they are doing' and create an environment where staff feel able to be open and honest about how they are feeling.

Encourage staff to develop their own Wellness Action Plans

Staff who have previously experienced mental ill health may find it beneficial to develop Wellness Action Plans that 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. For more information, go to www.mind.org.uk and search for 'Wellness Action Plans'.

Talking to a team member who may be experiencing mental ill health

Knowing how to best approach and talk to a team member who may be experiencing mental ill health may seem difficult, and it can be tempting to avoid the matter.

However, it is much better to try to resolve concerns at an early stage and nip issues in the bud before they can escalate further or worsen. 

A manager who believes a team member may be experiencing mental ill health should take the lead and arrange a meeting as soon as possible to talk to the team member in private. The conversation should be approached in a positive and supportive way.

A manager should also be prepared for a team member to come and talk to them about their mental health. This can be very difficult for both the team member and the manager, so it is vital that the manager stays calm and patient, is supportive and offers reassurance.

A manager should:

  • move the conversation to a private space, where they will not be disturbed (if not already somewhere appropriate)
  • thank the team member for coming to talk to them
  • allow them as much time as they need
  • focus on what the team member says
  • be open minded
  • try to identify what the cause is
  • think about potential solutions
  • be prepared for the unexpected
  • adjourn the meeting if it is necessary to think through what has been discussed before making a decision.

Acas offers Training courses for managers on having difficult conversations.

Managing a team member who may feel unable to talk

Of course, a team member may not want to talk about issues they are going through. A manager should not try to rush them or pressure them to talk. Instead, it may be best for a manager to simply ensure that the team member knows they are available at any time, to talk about anything.

A manager should then monitor the situation. If they continue to see and hear things that concern them, they may need to seek further advice and guidance from HR, senior management or Occupational Health.

Supporting a team member during periods of mental ill health

If a team member's mental ill health amounts to a disability, an organisation must consider making 'reasonable adjustments' to help them carry out their job without being at a disadvantage.

To understand more about what is likely to amount to a disability, see the Acas guide, pdf icon Disability discrimination: key points for the workplace [392kb].

However (whether it amounts to a disability or not), it makes sense for organisations to make changes that will help staff attend work and/or reduce the pressures on their mental ill health.

Usually small, simple changes to working arrangements or responsibilities will be all that are required. For example, allowing them to have more rest breaks or working with them each day to help prioritise their workload.

Any adjustment should only be made following discussion and agreement between the manager and team member on what might be helpful and what is possible. The team member will often know what support or changes they need. An Occupational Health referral can also help to identify adjustments that should be made.

Once an adjustment has been agreed, a manager should document this. Any change should be regularly monitored and reviewed to check that it is providing the support required.

Supporting the rest of your team

When team members become aware that a work colleague is experiencing mental ill health they may find it distressing.

A manager should be prepared to support the team more than they usually would. This might include being around their team, and having catch-ups with each member on how they are doing. The manager should also make clear that they are available at any time to talk about any concerns or worries a team member may have.

Where an organisation has additional support services (such as mental health first aiders or employee assistance programmes), a manager should also promote these services so staff understand how they may benefit from using them.

Managing absence related to mental ill health

Sometimes staff experiencing mental ill health will need to be absent from work for a period of time. This may be because they are too ill to work or it could be because the medication they are on means they are not able to safely carry out their work. To support staff while they are away from the workplace, a manager should:

  • agree when and how regular contact will be maintained during the absence
  • be positive, professional and supportive at all times
  • agree what the team member would like their work colleagues to know about their absence and how they are doing
  • not pressure the team member to return to work before they feel ready
  • encourage a phased return
  • use Occupational Health where practicable to look at ways the organisation can support the team member return to work.

Maintaining regular contact is vital. Lack of contact can lead to misunderstandings, make the team member feel that they are not missed and make it much harder for them to return. Sometimes, it may be appropriate to arrange to meet up in a neutral venue away from the workplace to catch up.

An absent team member may request no contact, but it is important that a manager does not accept this. However, if the team member alleges that the manager has been a factor in their mental ill health, it may be preferable for them to stay in contact with another manager or HR.

Occupational Health can assess the team member and advise what adjustments could be made to help the team member return to work.

Many organisations have a contract with an Occupational Health provider. If your organisation does not, Fit for Work offers free occupational health assessments for staff who reach four weeks of sickness absence. For more information, go to www.fitforwork.org.

Helping a team member return to work

When a team member is ready to return to work, it is important to ensure that they feel supported and understand what will be expected of them on their return.

A manager should consider meeting them away from the workplace before they return to discuss their return and alleviate any concerns they may have.

A return-to-work interview should also be held once they do return. It provides a good opportunity to:

  • welcome them back to work
  • check they are well enough to return
  • update them on any workplace news they may have missed while away
  • discuss their absence
  • discuss any worries the person has about returning to work
  • confirm their working arrangements and what plans and adjustments are in place to support them in their work
  • allow them to ask questions.

Approaching potential disciplinary or capability matters

Most staff who experience mental ill health will recover and return to being a valuable and productive member of the team. However on some occasions, even with adjustments in place, a team member's performance or conduct may warrant further action.

Before taking action a manager should consider whether:

  • additional adjustments or further support may improve performance or conduct
  • other lighter duties or a transfer to different role may be available.

If further action is necessary the manager must follow the organisation's procedures for handling these matters and ensure that a fair process is completed as set out in Discipline and grievances at work: The Acas guide.

Acas training courses

Acas has developed an e-learning course in conjunction with Mindful Employer on Mental Health Awareness for Employers.

Other courses include:

  • Managing people
  • Managing Absence
  • Discipline & Grievance
  • Performance Management

Further information is available from Acas Learning OnLine. Acas also runs practical Training courses to equip managers, supervisors and HR professionals with the necessary skills to deal with employment relations issues and create more productive workplace environments.

Further support for managers and staff

  • Access to work - www.gov.uk/access-to-work - can provide advice and an assessment of workplace needs for individuals, with disabilities or long-term health conditions, who are already in work or about to start. Grants may also be available to help cover the cost of workplace adaptations.
  • Business in the Community - www.bitc.org.uk - is a network that provides toolkits on Mental Health, Suicide prevention and Suicide postvention to help employers support the mental health and wellbeing of employees.
  • Mind - www.mind.org.uk - is a leading mental health charity in England and Wales. It provides information and support on how to improve mental health.
  • Mindful Employer - www.mindfulemployer.net - is a UK-wide, NHS initiative. It is aimed at increasing awareness of mental health at work and providing support for businesses when recruiting and retaining staff.
  • NHS choices - www.nhs.uk/livewell/mentalhealth - has a website that offers information and practical advice for anyone experiencing mental ill health.
  • Remploy - www.remploy.co.uk - offers a free and confidential Workplace Mental Health Support Service for anyone absent from work or finding work difficult because of a mental health condition. It aims to help people remain in, or return to, their role.
  • Rethink Mental Illness - www.rethink.org - is a voluntary sector provider of mental health services offering support groups, advice and information on mental health and problems.