Sadly, mental health problems are on the increase in society and this inevitably impacts on the workplace. Mental health is now the leading cause of sickness absence. It has been suggested that a staggering 70 million work days are lost each year due to mental health problems in the UK, costing employers approximately £2.4 billion per year.

National Charity Mind estimate that 1 in 6 workers are dealing with a mental health problem that can affect their performance at work.

A study by the CIPD highlighted the impact that mental ill health can have on organisations. The study found that:
• 37% of sufferers are more likely to get into conflict with colleagues
• 57% find it harder to juggle multiple tasks
• 80% find it difficult to concentrate
• 62% take longer to do tasks
• 50% are potentially less patient with customers/clients.

What is the cause of Mental Health?
There are multiple factors that can contribute to someone being diagnosed with a mental health problem, such as poverty, genetics, childhood trauma, bereavement, discrimination, or ongoing physical illness (and many others) and when mental health problems arise they can happen to anybody.

We can all feel down or stressed temporarily and most of the time those feelings pass, but sometimes they develop into a mental health problem like anxiety or depression, which can impact our daily lives. For some people, mental health problems become complex and require support and treatment for life.

What should an Employer do?
Upon learning that an employee has a mental health problem, an employer should be supportive to help the employee cope and recover. The support people receive from employers is key in determining how well and how quickly they are able to get back to peak performance.

However, it is not only the day to day work issues that employers have to think about but people with ongoing mental health problems may meet the definition of disability in the Equality Act. To be considered disabled, a person must have a physical or mental impairment that is long term and has a substantial, adverse, effect on their ability to carry out everyday activities.

If an individual has a disability, they are protected from discrimination and harassment and are entitled to reasonable adjustments to their job or workplace.

Providing Support
Most employers and work colleagues would wish to support an employee who has developed a mental health issue. Often an episode of mental ill-health is a one-off event triggered perhaps by a single event such as a bereavement or other traumatic experience but for others it can be a long term problem.

In many cases, the best person to work out the solution to the problem is the individual themselves. However, the support of colleagues and their employer to find ways to recover and to stay well, (such as encouragement that they see their doctor/counsellor, eat regularly and healthily, regular exercise, and minimise alcohol intake) and ensuring that the workplace is a safe and pleasant place to be, can be steps in the right direction.

If an employee is absent from work, it may be a good idea to ask what they would like their colleagues to be told. It is also important to try to keep in regular contact with the employee.

If the employee is going to be absent for some time, make sure they are not excluded from any workplace social event, or if colleagues are planning a get together. The employee may decline but are likely to appreciate being invited. The same invitation should be made to employees who might be on long term absence for other non-disability related medical or injury reasons.

Potential Problem Areas
When an employee is absent, it is their colleagues often who have to pick up the work that they would have done, with the employer possibly incurring cost of additional hours worked, or temporary cover.

Sometimes, this results in animosity towards the absent employee. Especially if colleagues see the absent employee out in the community or posting pictures of themselves ‘out and about’ on social media websites.

BUT REMEMBER: firstly, that not all disabilities can be seen; and secondly, that the image the person presents via social media – might not reflect reality. If the absent employee is out and about in the community, that should be interpreted as a positive step that the employee’s recovery is heading in the right direction. Sadly, some colleagues may, of course, interpret that the absent employee is faking the condition!

In addition to the concerns of colleagues, mental health issues can affect a person’s work performance and their conduct at work which are issues that may need to be dealt with and employees may need an extended period off work due to their illness.

Conduct – Inappropriate Behaviour
Unacceptable behaviour must be addressed and an employer should not shy away from using disciplinary procedure where needed, just because the employee has mental health problems. However, an employer should anticipate health/disability related issues and factor those in when investigating and carrying out the disciplinary process. It is wise to keep an open mind as to whether a mental health concern is a contributory factor.

Performance Management
When addressing poor performance, employers must consider whether there are any health or mental health issues that have contributed to the employee’s poor performance and, if so, consider whether allowances or reasonable adjustments can be made.

In both these areas it is important (as with any such matter) that the issues resulting in formal action are fully investigated before any sanctions are considered.

Managing Absence
Experience shows that when absence is due to mental health issues, the longer a person is away the less likely they are to return and that return is harder to achieve.

Normal notification and certification rules apply and if an absence has extended beyond 7 days, the person will require a Fit Note from the employee’s doctor.

The Fit Note may well give you an idea of whether there might be reasonable adjustments to consider. Sometimes, a phased return to work can be helpful. Working fewer hours a day and reduced days whilst building back up to working their contracted hours can be a very successful approach to achieving an early return. If you need further guidance, you could seek assistance from an Occupational Health Provider or ask the employee for consent so that you can write to their doctor to help understand their condition. Both will provide an indication of when they may be fit to return and should provide guidance on the implementation of any reasonable adjustments.

If the absence becomes long term, employers will inevitably have to address the potential ending of employment on capability grounds. Any such dismissal carries risk, even more so if the employee has a disability. You will need to follow a capability/ill health procedure, which will involve obtaining a medical report (providing the employee gives consent) and you should only dismiss if it is appropriate to do so having regard to all the facts and circumstances of the case. Moreover, you will have to show you have fully considered what reasonable adjustments could have been made/were made to retain the employee’s services but have not been successful.

This is a complex area and difficult one to manage; but there are many charitable organisations such as Mind, SANE, and others that can provide help and guidance …