Supporting an employee with mental ill-health

In our last newsletter, we discussed how to approach a team member with signs of mental ill-health.
This article will consider the next step: providing support in the workplace and, as leaders, reviewing our standard of communication to make sure that we offer more than just protocols.

Don’t ignore the situation

It is important that any situation regarding an employee’s mental health is dealt with quickly, professionally and compassionately. It is of course imperative that we are up-to-date with our responsibilities as employers and are aware of any reasonable adjustments that we may legally need to make under the Equality Act. But what is just as important, is how we communicate and our level of understanding.

It likely took a lot of courage for the person to be honest with you about their health, and they may be feeling very vulnerable to judgement. While the workplace may at times exacerbate mental health conditions, with the right approach, you can actually play a pivotal role in their recovery.

Worryingly, studies show that many employers choose to ignore situations involving mental health. It is understandable to feel apprehensive in case we do or say the wrong thing, but not doing anything at all is far worse and could be considered negligent.

Gaining a comprehensive understanding of mental ill-health is the most valuable action we can take in supporting someone who is unwell. Without this knowledge, we risk making unfair and damaging assumptions and could seriously jeopardize the employee’s recovery. There are many organisations – such as Mind or Vetlife – that can provide guidance for employers, and training programmes such as the Mental Health First Aid course are available nationwide.

Considering their needs

It should be stressed that it is not our role to try to diagnose, but we can be central in supporting the person in getting the help that they need. Arrange a private and friendly meeting, and, as emphasised in our last article, ensure that they know in advance that it will not be a performance review. The focus of the meeting must be on their wellbeing and on creating a support plan.

If they have not already done so, encourage the employee to visit their doctor. It may sound like a cliché, but it’s true: you wouldn’t ignore seeking treatment for a physical illness, and mental health is absolutely no different.

Work with the employee to discuss what support they need, but don’t assume that they will automatically know. If we have a bad back, it will be quite obvious that we can’t lift heavy objects, but common symptoms of mental health conditions are shame and self-destruction. Mental illness feeds off tricking the person into believing that they cannot get better; hence it is so important that professional help is accessed.

When discussing care, empathy is key and do be mindful of our industry’s reputation for presenteeism. It is possible that the employee may be reluctant to miss work for doctor appointments, therapy or even when signed off. They may feel that they would be letting the team down and that they should just ‘get on with it’. It is your responsibility to insist that time off to recover must take priority – and really mean it. Consider your body language here, too, and be wholly present in the conversation. This is not the time to be thinking in the back of your mind about how you’re going to fill the rota. There are always solutions to temporary situations and your employee must feel confident and reassured that you are on their side.

Returning to work

It may be that the employee feels better for being at work – albeit with revised hours and extra support – but if they have been signed off, careful and considerate planning is needed to ensure their return to work is successful; and for most people this is a positive step.

Do keep in regular contact while they are off; if you would usually send flowers and company updates to someone off work with a physical illness, then do so with this employee, too. Keeping the conversation going and showing that they are still a valued and included member of the team can go a long way in motivating an unwell employee to get better, and it can make it easier for you to politely enquire about their recovery.

Returning to work can be very daunting for someone who has been off, and just walking through the entrance again can often be the hardest part. It can therefore help to invite the employee in for a friendly catch-up at the practice a week or so before they start back, but check in advance what details the employee is comfortable with the rest of the team knowing in regard to their absence. They may want everything kept private, or they may feel relieved for it to all be out in the open.

Continuing the support

Regular check-ins with all our employees are vital if we are to maintain trust and confidence within our team, and these one-to-one sessions will be even more important when an employee is unwell or recovering. Be patient as confidence is rebuilt and ensure that your employee knows what support is available before they need to ask for it.

Look after yourself

It can be a worrying time when we are supporting someone who is unwell and, as someone in a position of responsibility, it can at times feel overwhelming. It is essential that you, too, also develop a support network and allow yourself the time for adequate rest.

A positive influence

Mental ill-health must always be taken with the utmost seriousness; the effects on the individual can never be overestimated. However, with the correct knowledge and support, employers can play a positive and central role in their employee’s recovery.