Shaun Hogan, Senior Associate at Stevens & Bolton LLP, examines how employers can destigmatize mental health issues
Campaigns such as World Mental Health day (falling on 10 October each year) can have a real impact on destigmatizing mental health issues in the workplace. But what can employers in the sports and retail world do to ensure these issues are appropriately managed in their workplace? Can supporting mental health bring commercial benefits too?
The impact of mental health in the workplace
According to the Health and Safety Executive, in 2016/17, 12.5 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in the UK, equating to approximately half of all days lost due to ill health. Aside from sickness absence, poor mental health can lead to performance issues, affect relationships at work and have a wider ripple effect in the workplace, negatively affecting profitability.
The impact on employers can be particularly challenging when the individual is engaged in a small team or in a customer facing role, where absences and negative feelings towards work can impact the business. For those in the retail sector, issues often flare up during busier times of the year, such as the lead up to Christmas, when staff are more likely to feel overwhelmed at work.
In some cases, mental health issues can lead to employment claims, including where the employer has contributed towards the health issues and/or has failed to adapt working practices to accommodate a recognised mental health condition. Mental health issues can amount to a disability under the Equality Act 2010 which, if triggered, imposes certain requirements on the employer, including making reasonable adjustments to the employee’s work.
Providing support to employees
In order to guard against mental health issues arising, and to lessen their impact on a business in the event of employee absences or even an employment claim, it is crucial that employers provide appropriate support to their workforce. What’s more, doing so can boost staff retention rates and increase performance, helping to improve the bottom line.
There are a number of ways in which a business can provide support. First and foremost, businesses should actively seek to destigmatize mental health issues and work towards building a culture under which staff feel comfortable discussing mental health concerns without fear of it being used against them (for example by way of disciplinary proceedings or being overlooked for promotion). According to a 2017 survey carried out by “Business in the Community”, 42% of employees in the retail sector would not feel comfortable raising mental health concerns with their manager. Addressing this can only be achieved from the top down, with managers being mindful not to see mental health as a weakness. It may be appropriate to carry out a company-wide stress audit, asking employees how they feel about the issue, to identify any recurring themes.
Not only should the culture foster open discussions, it should also be one in which staff are not rewarded for behaviours which might contribute to workplace stress. For example, praising an employee for working while sick or on holiday, performing excessive overtime or “logging on” outside of work can all contribute towards a culture in which mental health is a greater concern. The statistics bear out a correlation between presenteeism (attendance at work despite being sick) and high stress levels.
Managers are best placed in a business to see behavioural changes at an individual level which might indicate high stress and will be best placed to deal with the situation. Ideally, training would be given to help them spot mental health issues at an early stage and guidance on how to deal with it when it arises. They should also be encouraged to involve HR to ensure a consistent approach.
There are many ways in which an employer can support an employee suffering from stress. Many provide access to an employee assistance provider operating a confidential telephone helpline for employees. Often these form part of a wider medical scheme, but can be arranged separately as well. Alternatively, free services such as those offered by the charity “Mind” can offer some support, to which employees can be directed. Employers may refer employees to an occupational health specialist in more serious cases to help provide support and better understand what the business can do to alleviate the concerns. Mental health ‘first aiders’ (employees trained in dealing with mental health issues) are becoming increasingly commonplace and can offer helpful practical help to employees, particularly because they are aware of any peculiarities in the specific workplace.
Finally, a policy to specifically deal with stress can be introduced to set out what an employee should do if they feel under particular stress and the steps which the business may take to offer them support. These steps might include reviewing and reallocating work, considering flexible working arrangements, referring the individual to a counselling service and/or occupational health, or even following the grievance procedure if the circumstances warrant it.
In the sports retail world, where workplace stresses can be high, employers must take positive steps to mitigate the impact on mental health issues. By offering appropriate support and destigmatizing these issues, businesses will reap the benefits.