Incorporating mental health days into sickness leave

Thursday 03 October 2019
From sick leave to stress leave, how many types of invisible illnesses should your policies cover?
person lying down on sofa

If an employee drags themselves into the office with a bad case of the flu, you wouldn’t hesitate to send them home on sick leave – but some debilitating conditions aren’t as visible as that. Around a quarter of people will experience mental ill health in their lifetimes, and as a manager, you need to provide staff with the same support as any other illness.

That may mean that your staff member needs to take time off work. You need to ensure that you remain supportive and flexible with that staff member, while also ensuring that the rest of your team is not overwhelmed. “The rest of the team may be upset to see a colleague experiencing a health issue and may need extra support themselves to cope with it,” says Tom Neil, guidance writer for ACAS.

So what policies should you have in place to ensure that mental health is dealt with as comprehensively as other sickness?

Communicate to get clarity

A manager dealing with an affected team member will need to understand:

Exactly what the health issue is;

What the impact on the individual might be, and how this may affect their work;

The support or adjustments that could be made to help the employee, both practical (such as adapting a workstation) and emotional;

What steps need to be put in place to mitigate the impact on the team and organisational performance;

What the employee wants the rest of the team to know and not know;

How other team members are experiencing the situation – while you may be focused on the person with a health issue, remember to listen to others’ concerns too.

When talking through how you can accommodate this employee, speak to the employee in a sensitive and supportive way. You may also need to have further discussions with HR, senior managers and the rest of the team, bearing confidentiality in mind. “A manager should also consider asking the employee for permission to contact their GP or referring them to occupational health (where this is an option), who could provide further guidance on the effects of the health issue and the type of support and adjustments that would help the employee in the workplace,” says Neil.

Review policies

Check company policies on sickness absence to make sure you follow the right procedures. Although mental health issues can be difficult to assess, try to treat them like any other sickness. Mental health issues can be acute or chronic – the support you provide your team member should vary depending on the situation. From your careful and supportive questioning, you should have an idea of which this is. Don’t delay in seeking support from HR – inaction can be harmful.

Keep reassuring

Make sure the team member knows you want to support them on an ongoing basis. The same applies to the rest of the team. Neil suggests these tips:

Have regular conversations with the affected team member, as well as their colleagues. Keep this up from time to time – even when the situation seems to have settled

Reassure everyone that you want to help

Check in with the team member regularly to find out how they are getting on

Listen carefully to all your staff – don’t make assumptions

Be patient: don’t try to force anyone into having conversations if they seem reluctant

Be clear you’re available at any time if they ever want to talk

It’s very important to keep in regular contact with the absent member of staff. A lack of contact can cause greater anxieties and misunderstandings – remember that there is still a stigma around mental illness. Without regular, supportive contact, it can be difficult for the staff member to return. Even if the team member requests that you don’t contact them, keep in touch, or arrange for another manager or HR representative to maintain contact with them.

For more information on starting the conversation on mental health, read our article on how to talk about depression at work.

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