The past few decades has seen a change occur in workplace attitudes toward mental health. While once a person suffering from a mental health problem might have been dismissed as being lazy or overdramatic, now conditions like depression and anxiety are rightly put on a par with physical ailments like sprained ankles and sore throats. The direction of travel, broadly, is positive.
And yet, there’s still a great deal of progress to be made, and workplaces can play a vital role in making the change happen. With October being Mental Health Awareness Month, it presents a great opportunity for employers to consider what their role might look like.
This isn’t just a niche concern, but something that businesses across the world are beginning to take extremely seriously. RSM Global, for example, have held public meetings between CEO, COO and Head of People, to discuss what can be done to create a ‘psychologically safe environment’.
What does the law say?
In law, employers owe what’s called a ‘duty of care’ to their employees. This means doing everything reasonably possible to ensure a safe working environment for workers. In the case of mental health, this might mean taking steps to identify what aspects of the workplace and its culture are driving stress, anxiety, depression and other symptoms.
Mental health concerns should form a component of risk assessments – not least because mental health problems can lead to other forms of risk. For example, a worker who’s stressed and sleep deprived might be at greater risk of committing a dangerous error.
The law also requires that employers do not discriminate against the disabled. Certain mental health issues can qualify as a disability. To qualify, the issue in question would need to have a ‘substantial adverse effect’ on the employee, affecting their ability to do everyday tasks, and last for longer than a year.
How to Create a Supportive Environment?
By intervening to correct and manage a mental health problem early, we can limit their impact. This ultimately means less time off for the individual, and a more diffuse improvement in morale across the entire workplace.
If mental health problems are to be identified and addressed, then staff members will need to feel comfortable talking about them. This requires creating the right workplace environment.
Employers might arrange awareness training and workshops. They might appoint a member of the HR team to act as a mental health champion, toward whom staff members can direct their issues. Working hours should also be limited, and, where possible, arranged in such a way that employees can get as much sleep as the need. Perhaps most important are the mechanisms through which problems are identified – and that means implementing a robust, anonymised complaints process.