Georgie Chapman, partner at legal firm HR Legal, talks about managing mental health in the workplace.
A key matter for employers, particularly during the pandemic, has been compliance with legal obligations when mental health is a concern amongst staff.
Employers have a legal obligation to provide a safe and healthy work environment for employees, so far as it is reasonably practicable. These safety obligations extend to both physical and psychological safety for employees whilst they work. A key component of safety obligations is to monitor the health of employees, and this has never been more important than in this period of rapid change and uncertainty.
Implications of the pandemic – a ‘perfect storm’ for psychological conditions
One of the implications of the pandemic has been a focus on the health and wellbeing of employees, and this has meant getting to know staff and colleagues better. Employers have become more flexible and mindful of employees’ personal circumstances, including in respect to employees’ needing increased flexibility to care for children or family members. People are sharing more about their home life with their colleagues and there is a renewed focus on the home and work divide.
For many workers, working from home on an ongoing basis has presented a number of challenges for good mental health. Furthermore, even workers working onsite have faced enormous challenges in the face of ongoing uncertainty, changing workplace conditions and rules and concerns about job security and, of course, their own health and that of their loved ones. This has increased the risk of employees developing, or exacerbating pre-existing, mental health issues.
From a psychologic safety perspective, these conditions have created a ‘perfect storm’, and it is more important than ever that managers prioritise monitoring the mental health of employees.
Challenges for employers
Compounding the challenges outlined above, during the pandemic employers may have faced challenges in effectively monitoring the health of employees, whether because employees are working remotely and are less visible, or because social distancing requirements onsite have meant less interaction and connection.
Further, employees may feel reticent to discuss feelings of distress with their managers and colleagues, particularly if it is not common in the particular workplace to discuss personal matters, or if they are concerned about job security.
As a result, managers now more than ever are encouraged to take proactive steps to check-in and support employees and monitor the mental health of workers.
Proactive steps to manage psychological safety
Managing workplace mental health does not require an employer to diagnose or treat an employee. Rather, employers need to ensure that employees can perform work safely, and where an employee is experiencing mental health issues, employers should consider offering practicable workplace supports to enable an employee to do so.
Should employers notice changes in an employee’s behaviour or engagement at work, they should take appropriate steps to seek to understand these changes, and whether there are underlying mental health issues at play.
Employers should consider how to continue to monitor health as employees increasingly move to working under a ‘hybrid’ model of partially in the office and partially from home. Leaders should consider how to effectively implement both team and individual check-ins and ensure all employees remain engaged regardless of their work location or arrangements. For employees continuing to work remotely, video conferencing is preferred so that managers can pick up on any visual cues that an employee may be struggling with. These may include signs of fatigue, sudden changes in mood, being quiet or withdrawn, or behaviours that are out of character to the employee.
Managers should also pay particular attention to the wellbeing of staff with known pre-existing mental health conditions, or those who have been under additional known pressures during the pandemic such as home-schooling or a family member who has health issues. Such employees may require more regular check-ins.
Employers may also consider other measures to foster staff wellbeing, such as:
- toolbox talks concerning mental health;
- a team specific ‘check in’ or pulse check where each of the team members self-rates how they are doing on a regular basis;
- a buddy system to ensure each member of staff has a buddy who checks in with them outside of ‘official’ channels at regular intervals; and
- reminding staff of access to EAP or other counselling services where required.
Employers should also consider implementing training for managers so that they understand how to:
- identify the early warning signs that an employee is not coping;
- provide reasonable, meaningful and sustainable workplace supports;
- have conversations regarding mental health, including how to refer an employee to professional supports; and
- manage a situation if an employee does not have the capacity to fulfil the inherent requirements of their role safely.
Communication is key, and employers should aim to maintain an open and inclusive working environment irrespective of whether the employee is working remotely or onsite.
Women Love Tech would like to thank Georgie Chapman, partner at legal firm HR Legal, for her article.