Spotting the warning signs: How best to manage mental health issues

19 September 2017 -


Mental Health SupportStaff absences relating to mental health issues have rocketed by more than 700%

Jermaine Haughton

Psychiatric problems are now the most common reason for people to take time off work, the latest NHS research has revealed, providing a further prompt for managers to strengthen their employee mental health support policies at work.

A 14% rise in the number of sick notes relating to anxiety and stress between 2015/16 and 2016/17 reported by the latest National Health Service research has led to psychiatric problems surpassing musculoskeletal diseases as the biggest cause of absenteeism in the workplace.

Some 573,000 cases of sick leave due to poor mental health were reported in England in the last year, a significant surge from the 70,000 recorded from the previous year.

The NHS Digital report shows one in three sick notes issued by General Practitioners (GPs) are for mental health reasons. More than 12 million sick notes, issued over almost two and a half years from GP practices across England, were analysed by researchers as part of the study.

The report also revealed that fit notes for psychiatric problems were being issued for longer periods of time than other types of illness, with more than one in five psychiatric sick notes issued for longer than 12 weeks, compared to only 3% of notes for diseases of the respiratory system.

With absenteeism costing UK businesses approximately £2.4 billion per year, the severity of the issue is becoming ever clearer for business leaders, politicians and British society.

In addition to health problems keeping staff away from their jobs, a separate study from financial company Canada Life Group Insurance shows that many employees are also struggling with psychiatric issues while at work. Nearly a fifth (18%) of respondents say they’ve gone into work when feeling mentally unwell – equivalent to 5.8 million British workers.

In fact, one in five (19%) employees would be more likely to go into work if mentally ill than physically ill, suggesting the long-held stigma towards mental health in the workplace is still a burning issue. This is further emphasised by the fact that only a fifth of respondents admitted that they would take time off for a stress-related illness, while 20% would be embarrassed to tell colleagues they were off for a mental health problem.

Worryingly, the NHS data suggests many employees are worried about how their manager would react to time off for mental health, with more than one in ten (13%) worried about their future job prospects if they took time off for mental health issues.

For managers, identifying employees who may need support in dealing with their mental health issues can be notoriously difficult.

New Bupa research shows that line managers would benefit from support and advice to identify mental health issues within their teams, with 34% of managers saying they would struggle to detect if their colleagues were experiencing a mental health issue.

Individuals' experience of mental illness and their mechanisms for coping with it can differ widely. Symptoms can range from physical (such as fatigue or headaches), psychological (such as anxiety and sadness), behavioural (such as increased alcohol consumption and restlessness) and changed attendance patterns (such as lateness and working long hours).

This is further complicated by the stigma surrounding mental health problems at work, which encourages individuals to hide their symptoms, often worsening their condition and contributing to the lack of understanding on the subject.

According to the recent Time to Change public health campaign, 67% of people with mental health problems do not tell their employer because they worry about the reaction. Then there is the difficulty managers face in trying not to pry to deeply into individual’s personal and sensitive issues and cause offence.

Nonetheless, managers have a responsibility to support the wellbeing of their team, and Adrian Lewis, director of absence management software company, Activ Absence said that employers need to be proactive in responding to mental health issues.

“It’s indisputable that more must be done to help people return to work, however, preventative measures are often overlooked and companies could be doing much more to identify potential issues early on,” he said.

“Professionals agree that early support is key to obtaining a successful outcome for both employer and employee, but all too often employers are only aware of an issue when an employee is signed off sick with anxiety or stress, which is too late. By this point, productivity could have been affected for months and the employee will have suffered both at home and work – it’s a lose-lose for everyone involved.”

4 Early Warning Signs Of Mental Health Problems At Work (And What To Do About It)

Employees are taking a lot of sick days

While many employees may not feel comfortable in stating stress, anxiety or depression as their reason for absence, taking regular shorter-term absences for an ongoing problem without the provision of a doctor’s note may be reflective of an underlying mental health issue.

Tip: Try monitoring employee absence patterns and conducting return to work interviews with employees who have taken significant time off work to help their readjustment back into the workplace.

Mood Swings, Uncharacteristic and Erratic Behaviour

Some people experience a change in mood and character when dealing with significant stress. From lashing out or bullying other staff, to skipping lunch breaks and having a more withdrawn personality than usual.

Tip: Try holding informal and fun workshops every month educating and openly discussing mental health issues, and how they can impact on their personal and work life. Also, some employers proactively signpost support services available through Employee Assistance Programmes, such as counselling.

Low Employee Engagement and Poor Productivity

People experiencing poor mental health may appear tired and lethargic, struggle to start or finish tasks and demonstrate an inability to make decisions.

Tip: Try finding solutions to lighten the workload and pressure on your employees. Can you share tasks more evenly among the team? Is banning out-of-work hours emails an option? In recent years, flexible working has been popular alternative for many people - the NHS report found 37% of workers say the opportunity to work flexibly would help them.

High staff turnover

Most employees do not quit their jobs without some serious thought, and often the cause is less the nature of the job but more the poor quality of management, the negative workplace culture and the unhealthy impact it is having on their life. Employees who are experiencing mental health issues may resign because they feel that cannot get better while they are still at work.

Tip: Try to find out why people are leaving. Exit interviews, whereby interviewees are encouraged to be open and frank without any backlash, are a key method for many top managers for identifying underlying workplace issues.

Want to find out more about how you can better manage the health and wellbeing of your workforce (and make them more productive)? Then read CMI’s Quality of Working Life research, which includes management tips and case studies of innovative workplace solutions for improving staff wellbeing



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