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How to support employee mental health

Debra Clark
Debra sits on the Jelf healthcare management team and is dedicated to delivering top levels of customer service to all clients.

What is mental health and why does it matter?

Mental health can be defined as a state of wellbeing in which every individual:

  • realises his or her potential,
  • can cope with the normal stress of life,
  • can work productively and fruitfully, and
  • is able to make a contribution to his or her community.

Mental health research tells us that:

  • At least 1 in 4 people will experience some kind of mental health problem each year1
  • 9 out of 10 people with mental health problems experience stigma and discrimination1
  • A quarter of people consider resigning due to stress1

Work is key in supporting employees with 86% of respondents believing their job and being at work is important to protecting and maintaining their mental health2. But fear of discrimination or harassment means that 46% of those diagnosed with a mental health condition do not disclose it to their employer2.

Line managers are often among the first to become aware of employees dealing with stress or mental health issues. Yet research shows that only 34% of employees with a mental health condition are well supported by their line manager2.

This isn’t surprising when you consider that:

  • Only 39% of line managers know what resources are available to them if they need help supporting an employee2, and
  • Only 10% of line managers feel they have sufficient training to deal with mental health problems at work2.

Early intervention providing access to support can reduce the length of an absence due to a mental health condition by 18%3 - so it’s incredibly important as a line manager to be aware of the signs of distress and provide support as quickly as possible.

So what can you do to help?

Look out for signs of distress, which can include:

  • Tiredness and irritability
  • Reduced quality of work
  • Indecisiveness and poor judgement
  • Loss of sense of humour
  • Physical illness such as headaches, nausea, aches and pains
  • Seeming jumpy or ill-at-ease, or admitting to sleeping badly
  • Increased sickness absence
  • Poor timekeeping
  • Changes in working day pattern such as staying late or taking work home

How to support an employee who’s experiencing distress

There is a lot of guidance available for employers including free resource packs from mental health charity MIND and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Unum’s practical steps for line managers include4:

Get prepared – be clear about your cause for concern (e.g. changes you have observed, attendance, problems mentioned) and consider your thoughts/opening. Then arrange a meeting in a safe and relaxed environment and prepare your questions.

Understand issues – make the time to listen and be open and honest. Make it clear that you’re not judging them. Whilst you don’t have all the answers you’re there to help them to seek support. Focus on the person behind the behaviour.

Identify resources – Identify what resources you have available for immediate support (e.g. Mental Health First Aider, GP, family/friends, occupational health). And consider longer term management (e.g. agree a schedule for ongoing communication, create a wellness action plan, refer them to their employee assistance programme or any other benefits such as private medical insurance).

Agree a wellness action plan – A wellness plan can help you and your employee work out ways to promote their health at work, providing a structure for regular conversations and record what has been agreed.

Implement plan – Implement and agree how you will monitor their wellness at work, including frequency of review and points of contact.

Review – Don’t expect to get it right first time. Diarise a review and discuss alternative adjustments that all parties agree to.

How can employee benefits support this?

There are many ways that employee benefits can support you and your employees. For example:

It is also worth understanding what added services are already included in your benefits. Some group income protection policies will provide your employees with access to an employee assistance programme to help maintain their emotional wellbeing and help prevent them spiralling out of control.

The wider impact of mental health

Don’t forget to think about the wider impact to you and your team. Consider the emotional impact, ensure clear communication and openness and highlight the support available as a team.


1 Unum and Mental Health Foundation ‘Managing mental health in the workplace’
2 Unum, Mental Health Foundation and Oxford Economics report ‘Added value: mental health as a workplace asset’ Nov 2016
3 Unum research, 2015
4 https://clive.unum.co.uk/content/mental-health-workshop-how-line-managers-can-help

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