Understanding stress and mental illness in the workplace

Workplace sickness can come in many shapes and sizes; from the odd day's illness here and there to long-term absence due to serious injury or disease. One area that is quite often more difficult to tackle is mental health; not least because mental illness still remains vastly misunderstood in society at large.

By Karen Credie, KMCHR.

Yet research shows that stress is a major contributor to absence from work - a survey by Group Risk Development (GRiD) found that 45% of employers said that they considered stress and mental illness a major factor in staff who had long-term absence from work. Furthermore, 25% reported it to be a regular cause of short-term absence.

Considering mental health is such an apparent contributor to workplace absence, relatively few employers have policies in place on how to deal with it.

Contrastingly in some countries, notably the United States and New Zealand, employees are entitled to take what are known as 'mental health days' - absence from work due not to physical illness, but to mentally recuperate if they do not feel up to coming into work.

Whilst this is unlikely to become common practice in the UK, and I am not suggesting that it should, there are ways in which employers can help staff who are suffering with stress, anxiety, depression or other mental health issues; encouraging them back into the workplace in an unpressurised manner.

Keeping an eye on the stress levels of staff and encouraging an open reporting policy if they feel they cannot cope is one place to start. Accurate recording of sickness absence is essential so that if periods of absence recur, managers can identify patterns and intervene to help staff if necessary.

Studies show that employees thrive in a working environment that is stretching and involves some pressure. Getting the balance right can be difficult and it is important that employers are allowed to manage the performance of their employees, without this being interpreted as stressful by those being managed.

If a member of staff has unfortunately reached a point when they can no longer come into work due to mental illness, it is important that employers treat this as any other physical illness and apply a sensitive and sensible attitude to dealing with getting the employee back to work. Keeping in contact with the employee at suitable intervals whilst allowing them to fully recuperate is a difficult balance to strike. As with any long-term illness or injury, medical advice will be important. Employers will also need to bear in mind that adjustments to the individual’s working environment and/or flexible working arrangements may need to be implemented for a smooth transition back to work.

Ultimately, mental illness needs to be approached with sensitivity but more importantly, empathy. Getting an employee who has been suffering with mental health problems back into the workplace is very rewarding for all involved and as long as any recommended reasonable adjustments are made, there is no reason why the employee cannot reach, or even surpass, their previous performance. If staff illness or absence are a concern to you, it is advisable to seek advice sooner rather than later. KMC HR can provide HR advice on an ad-hoc basis, or monthly or weekly support. Please contact us to find out more.