Last reviewed 4 April 2022
Recent years have seen a growing awareness of the need for employers to address mental health issues at work and to provide adequate support for their staff. Martin Hodgson looks at seven ways in which adult social care employers and managers can help to support staff wellbeing and mental health in their organisations.
1. Have appropriate policies in place
Stress at work policies are the most common, with the Health and Safety Executive strongly supporting their use. Separate mental health and wellbeing policies are also becoming increasingly widespread. In many cases staff mental health is also picked up in other policies, such as those relating to occupational health.
Having an effective policy in place provides a clear framework for how employees with mental health issues should be supported. It also demonstrates to staff that the senior management of the organisation takes their mental health and wellbeing seriously.
2. Raise awareness and promote a culture of good mental health
Positive mental health policies should be widely discussed with staff before being agreed. Staff engagement is key. Employee wellbeing should be the concern of everybody within a care service and educating staff about mental health is an important part of promoting understanding and creating a healthy culture of tolerance and respect where staff feel cared for and valued.
Employers should promote a culture of good mental health and wellbeing wherever possible. The approach should seek to “normalise” conversations about mental health and combat the stigma and fear that often surround the subject.
3. Adopt an organisation wide approach
Stress and mental health at work should be taken seriously throughout a care service, from senior management down. Mental health issues are common and affect many employees and managers working in care. Talking about issues openly and taking positive steps to address them is the best way to support staff.
The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) suggests a three-step approach to dealing with mental health at work:
train managers to spot the signs of employees who may be having psychological or emotional difficulties
identify any work-related causes and make “reasonable adjustments” to support people
promote awareness of mental health issues and create a culture where people feel they can talk about their concerns.
Many organisations have adopted standards to act as a framework. For instance, PAS 3002:2018, Code of Practice on Improving Health and Wellbeing within an Organization, has been developed by the British Standards Institution in collaboration with the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD). The standard considers how health and wellbeing can be incorporated into the working environment and how leadership can ensure that appropriate support services are available.
4. Provide appropriate support for staff
Employers should have robust arrangements in place for supporting staff who have stress at work issues or who have mental health needs. These should cover staff with everyday worries and emotional issues through to those with recognised mental health problems, such as serious mental illness and depression and anxiety disorders.
Initial support will typically include affected staff having discussions with their line managers and, where necessary, the development of agreed support plans. In some cases these plans might involve referral to a confidential specialist occupational health service. Some organisations might also identify the need to provide counselling services to ensure that staff have someone to talk to if they are having problems.
Providing flexible working arrangements is an important element in supporting staff with stress or mental health issues. Ongoing support should include flexibility to attend doctors’ appointments, clinics and hospital consultations as required. Managers should keep in touch with staff who are off sick. Staff should be supported to return to work with “reasonable adjustments” made as required. For example, staff might return to work on a “tapered” basis, slowly increasing their hours. In other cases stress could be relieved by adjusting roles and responsibilities.
Where stress or excessive workload is identified as a cause in exacerbating an existing mental health condition, then suitable action should be taken to resolve the situation in compliance with the organisation’s stress management policy.
Many organisations appoint mental health “champions” or mental health “first aiders” to ensure that staff always have someone to talk to if they need.
5. Train managers to recognise, support and manage staff with mental health problems
Line managers play a crucial role in promoting positive mental health at work and supporting staff. They are well placed to spot emotional or mental health problems in staff at an early stage and to offer initial support. In addition, staff may seek out their line manager as someone they can talk to about their problems.
Seeking help for mental health or stress issues is a big step and often a difficult one for individuals to take. Managers should support an open working culture where staff can approach them at any time. They should be trained to spot common symptoms and to listen and empathise without judging. They should also be aware of any referral routes to other support, such as occupational health services, if a member of staff needs to seek professional help.
6. Take action on stress at work
Arrangements for supporting staff with mental health needs should sit alongside control measures for stress at work.
While stress is not a mental health issue, many of the symptoms of stress and of mental health conditions are similar and stress can exacerbate an existing mental health issue and affect a person’s ability to cope, as it can with anyone. In addition, many of the causes of stress at work also affect those with mental health issues. Examples include high workloads and long working hours, inadequate supervision, poor training, bullying and harassment, autocratic management styles and low staffing levels.
Addressing these issues will not only combat stress but also help in establishing a culture of positive mental health.
7. Support wider staff wellbeing initiatives
Employers are increasingly adopting wider staff wellbeing initiatives in order to combat stress at work and promote positive mental health.
Employer-led wellbeing approaches are those concerned with supporting both the physical and emotional health of employees, helping them to prevent problems and to lead healthier working lives. For instance, many organisations support their staff to get more fresh air and exercise during their breaks in order to reduce stress, anxiety and depression. Others set up Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) which offer staff confidential counselling and advice on a wide range of work and health issues.
Increasing staff wellbeing can have many benefits for an organisation. Wellbeing approaches can help to reduce staff turnover and improve staff sickness rates, particularly those related to stress. Such approaches can also lead to a generally healthier, happier workplace.
Signing up to a national mental health campaign is also a good idea. Examples include Mental Health Awareness Week, Time to Change or the Workplace WellBeing Charter. This not only provides more support for staff but also demonstrates the commitment of an organisation to promoting positive mental health.
Adult social care employers should:
have appropriate mental health and stress at work policies in place
put robust arrangements in place for supporting staff who have stress or mental health needs
raise awareness of mental health issues and promote staff wellbeing
consider signing up to a national mental health initiative.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) produce a range of public health guidelines, including NG212 Mental Wellbeing at Work, published in March 2022.
INDG424 Working Together to Reduce Stress at Work: A Guide for Employees, published by the HSE, provides key guidance on work related stress.