New Acas Guidance On Managing Mental Health Issues In The Workplace
Most businesses are used to dealing with their employees’ physical ill health, but they are often less informed as to the best approach for handling mental health issues. Following the publication of the Mental Health at Work Report 2017, which found 60% of participants had experienced mental health issues in the last year because of work, Acas has published guidance to assist employers in managing staff who are suffering from mental health problems. The guidance includes the following recommendations.
Approaching a team member with mental health issues
The guidance suggests that employers should be proactive in raising potential mental health problems with employees. Specific recommendations for managers include:
> Ensure that conversations about mental health issues take place in private.
> Allow the employee as much time as they need, focus on what they say and remain open-minded.
> Try to identify the cause of the employee’s mental health issues.
> Consider potential solutions.
> Adjourn the meeting if necessary to reflect before making a decision as to the best way forward for the employee.
> Continue to monitor the situation and seek guidance if the employee’s mental health does not improve or deteriorates.
Staff who have experienced mental health problems should also be encouraged to develop their own personal Wellness Plans to identify the triggers, symptoms and early warning signs, how mental ill-health affects their performance and what support they need.
Support for employees
Employers need to be particularly alert to the possibility that an employee’s mental ill health may amount to a disability, in which case, the employer must consider making “reasonable adjustments” to help them carry out their job without being at a disadvantage. A disability is defined in the Equality Act 2010 as a “physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on …ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”. Mental illness will not always satisfy this definition and each case will need to be considered on its own merits. However, even if it does not, it makes sense for businesses to make adjustments to working arrangements and/or responsibilities to enable employees to continue to work, or return to work after a period of absence.
The kinds of adjustments which could be considered include reduced or adjusted working hours, additional rest breaks and assistance with prioritising workload. Any adjustment should only be made following discussion and agreement with the employee as to what changes would be helpful and can be accommodated. Once an adjustment has been agreed, this should be documented and reviewed regularly.
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. The Acas guidance suggests that it may be helpful to:
> Agree when and how regular contact will be maintained during the absence to make it easier for the employee to return. If the employee’s manager has been a factor in their mental ill-health, it may be advisable for the contact to be with another manager or member of HR. It may also be appropriate to arrange to catch up in a neutral venue away from the workplace.
> Agree what the employee would like their colleagues to know about their absence.
> Avoid pressuring the employee to return to work before they feel ready and encourage a phased return.
> Use Occupational Health where necessary to look at ways the organisation can support the team member’s return to work.
Helping a team member return to work
The Acas guidance recommends that when an employee 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 telephoning or meeting them before they return to discuss their return and any concerns they may have. A return-to-work interview should also be held once they do return. The aim is to welcome the employee back to work; confirm they are well enough to return; update them on any workplace news they may have missed; discuss any concerns about returning to work; and confirm their working arrangements and what plans/adjustments are in place to support them in their work.
Approaching potential disciplinary or capability matters
On some occasions an employee’s performance or conduct may warrant further action.
Before taking action a manager should consider the employee’s mental ill-health could constitute a “disability” in which case, reasonable adjustments may be required (if not already implemented). In any event, it is worth considering further adjustments or a change of role to enable the employee to remain at work. If further action is necessary the manager must follow the company’s procedures and Acas guidance for handling performance/disciplinary/sickness absence issues and ensure that a full and fair process is followed to avoid future employment tribunal claims.
It is important that employers take steps to promote positive mental health and support those experiencing mental ill health. Employees with good mental health are more likely to be productive, perform well and have good attendance records. Further, being aware of the signs of mental ill-health and managing issues effectively will reduce the likelihood of claims for constructive dismissal, unfair dismissal and/or disability discrimination. Employers should take note of the Acas guidance and may wish to consider adopting a mental health policy and putting in place support processes for staff experiencing mental ill-health.