Thanks to a number of high-profile campaigns by charities like Mind and Heads Together, mental health in the workplace is being given the recognition and support it rightly deserves.

There is still some way to go before it is treated on a par with physical health, but more and more employers are taking on board its importance and making sure their staff mental health is taken care of.

As an employer, just like you would with someone who has a physical illness, you can make adjustments within the workplace to allow someone who is mentally ill to continue to perform their role effectively.

As an overview, here are 5 reasonable adjustments you can make for employees suffering from mental health issues:

  • Reduced working hours
  • Workload adjustments
  • Changes to their working environment
  • Extra support from other staff
  • Encourage conversations and build a plan

In this article we're going to discuss the importance of mental health in the workplace, what reasonable adjustments look like and how you can put these into action. 

The importance of mental health in the workplace 

The importance of maintaining good mental health cannot be underestimated. At any time, one in six adults will be suffering mental health issues. This can include conditions such as anxiety, depression, stress or even more serious ones like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. 

Taking care of staff mental health issues and supporting them through any difficulties isn’t just a sign you’re a good employer - it can actually be good for your business too. According to statistics, people with mental health problems contribute an estimated £226 billion to the UK economy each year, or 12.1% of the UK’s GDP.

This is as much as nine times higher than the economic cost of dealing with mental health at work. Yet, the most common cause of long-term staff absence is mental ill health (56%).

Added to that, a whopping 86% of respondents to a survey organised by the Mental Health Foundation felt work was a key factor in supporting and protecting mental health.

Discover many more interesting insights and statistics around mental health in the workplace in our 2019 Sick Report

As an employer you have a legal duty to support people with mental health problems, according to the Equality Act 2010. This act outlines an employer’s responsibility to take steps to make sure a disabled person, suffering substantial long-term impairment, has the same access to opportunities that involve keeping or gaining employment as a non-disabled person. And this applies to mental as well as physical health.

What are reasonable adjustments? 

Adjustments are steps you can take, specific to a particular employee, so that employee can continue doing their job. Reasonable adjustments in the workplace are ones that are effective for the employee and but are also reasonable and not too costly or disruptive to the business.

As well as it being a legal requirement under the Equality Act 2010 for defined disabilities, including long-term and debilitating mental health, it’s good practice for businesses to make adjustments for anyone affected by mental health or stress at work.

Supporting employees with mental health issues can reduce sickness absence rates, increase staff retention and improve employee engagement – all things which have a positive impact on productivity.

5 reasonable adjustments you can make for mental illness

Working hours 

One of the easiest things you can do if you know someone to be struggling with mental health is to adjust their working patterns. This may involve offering flexible working, allowing for different start and finish times or allowing them to work from home if suitable. It could also include allowing them time off for appointments, spacing breaks differently or restructuring holiday time so it is spread more evenly throughout the year.

According to the CIPD, the top three benefits of investing in health and wellbeing, including flexible hours, are better employee engagement, a better working atmosphere and reduced sickness absence.

Managing staff workloads 

The top cause of stress-related absence at work is workload at 60%, with management style the second most common.

As a responsible employer you can help to support those with mental ill-health by assessing their workload. This might mean making adjustments to how much work you are expecting someone to do and assigning tasks to other staff members temporarily. It could also involve supervising the person in question more closely to assess the impact of their workload on them. 

Other support you could offer would be to help them prioritise their work or focus on a single task at a time so they’re not overwhelmed. You could also consider a job share to reduce the pressure on them. 

Physical changes to the working environment

The physical environment of your business may be impacting staff mental health. Do they work in an open plan office? Is it hard for them to concentrate with too much noise? What can you do about reducing noise and distractions?

It may be as simple as turning their desk around so they no longer have their back to other people, or it could be that they require their own office to work in. You might wish to consider creating a quiet space where they can take a break, reducing the pitch or volume of ring tones on phones or giving them more personal space.

Extra support from other staff

Creating a buddy or mentoring system can help someone who is struggling at work. This can be a formal or informal process.

Offering staff increased training can also help deal with issues of workload and feeling overwhelmed by supporting them further in the job they were hired to do.

You can offer greater human interaction and constructive feedback, so employees know when they are doing a good job and feel valued. Holding debriefs after difficult calls, customers or situations can also help allay the concerns of someone dealing with mental health issues - particularly stress or anxiety.

You could also offer mediation between colleagues if they’re having difficulties in communication or simply not getting on, or consider setting up a mental health group where people can air their worries.

Encourage conversations and develop a plan

Ultimately, the conversation on mental health starts with you and you need to foster a positive culture on the subject. People find it difficult to talk about mental health at work and unfortunately, there is still a stigma attached to it. But you can improve upon it by encouraging such conversations and normalising it.

When dealing with someone with a mental health issue, you should ask simple, non-judgemental questions, letting the person tell you how they are affected and what support they need.

You should treat each employee flexibly and don’t assume all symptoms are the same for everyone. Different staff will react in different ways to situations. You also need to be honest and clear with staff if there are specific concerns, and ensure confidentiality to build trust.

Developing a plan to deal with mental health in the workplace is vital, both a specific plan to help an individual employee and a more overarching plan on how you deal with mental health in general.

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