Communication is the biggest challenge when dealing with mental health absences

Posted by Debra Gers on
According to the 2014 CIPD Absence Management Survey, 43% of organisations reported an increase in mental health problems with anxiety and depression the most common cause. With the Centre for Mental Health estimating that 91 million days are lost to mental health problems every year at a cost to employers of £30 billion a year it is crucial to proactively manage mental health issues in the workplace.

Prior to our recent Autumn Employment Clubs, we conducted a survey of the issues our clients face when managing absences for mental health reasons. Overwhelmingly, communication with the individual was the biggest single problem, cited by 63% of respondents. This was followed by unpredictable behaviour and disciplinary issues both at 16% and gaining support from colleagues at 5%.

The difficulty regarding communication is perhaps understandable. HR or line managers are sometimes unsure about how often they should contact an employee who is off sick with say, workplace stress, or even, whether they should be in contact with the employee at all. They may not want to bother the employee when they are off work or don’t want the employee to feel that the organisation is checking up on them.

There is consistent advice on this issue – out of sight should not mean out of mind. There is helpful advice in the ACAS guidance, Promoting Positive Mental Health at Work and the Mind guidance, How to support staff who are experiencing a mental health problem. The government’s Fit for Work service also advises that employees should be encouraged to keep in touch regularly. Accordingly, maintain regular, open and meaningful communication with an employee who is off sick. Consider agreeing together the frequency of contact early on and how contact should be made, for instance by text, telephone or e mail. Whatever is agreed, it would be sensible to confirm this in writing.

As for disciplinary- related issues, if the employee’s mental health condition constitutes a disability within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010, the duty to make reasonable adjustments may arise. Examples of adjustments include the organisation allowing the employee to be accompanied at an investigatory meeting (where there is no statutory right to be accompanied) or permitting the employee to be accompanied by a family member at a disciplinary hearing. Consider also holding such meetings and hearings off site.

What else did our survey reveal?

57% of respondents said that the average length of absence for mental health reasons was between 1- 6 months. This is classified as long-term absence and managing this type of absence raises quite different issues when compared to managing short-term absences. Generally, there will be more frequent referrals to occupational health or medical experts and there may be a need to re-allocate workloads or even to recruit temporary cover. Communication with employees who are absent long-term is particularly important to ensure that they don’t feel isolated or forgotten about.

When asked why employees might not be open about a mental health problem the reasons given were:

  • 48% shame and social stigma
  • 19% fear of detriment 
  • 19% lack of awareness of possible treatments
  • 14% unaware of the problem themselves

The first two reasons are entirely consistent with the reasons given by Mind about why employees are reluctant to talk about their mental health problems. The last two are interesting and reveal a need for employers to develop a more open workplace and to create a culture where people feel comfortable talking about their mental health. It is also important to ensure that employees know what support is available, such as employee assistance helplines. A key step in managing mental health at work is to put in place a Workplace Stress and Mental Health policy and 95% of respondents to our survey have already done this.

For more information about promoting positive mental health at work, visit the ACAS website or visit MIND and read their piece on supporting your staff.

About the Author

Debra is responsible for the firm’s public employment training programme.

Debra Gers
Email Debra
029 2068 6164

View Profile