Employees’ mental health at work has worsened during the pandemic, according to new research. From broaching the topic with your boss to understanding what reasonable adjustments you’re entitled to, writer Caroline Butterwick investigates how to find and access mental health support at work.
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Over the uncertainty of the pandemic, more and more of us have experienced struggles with our mental health, and with our professional lives in flux, getting the support we need at work is increasingly important.
Mental health charity Mind regularly surveys staff across a range of employers for its annual Workplace Wellbeing Index. Its most recent survey found that of over 40,000 staff working across 114 organisations, 41% said their mental health had worsened during the pandemic, with fears about job security, redundancy, and the challenges of remote working all having an impact.
But, from knowing if you should declare your mental health when applying for a job or whether you should broach the topic with your boss, to understanding what reasonable adjustments you’re entitled to and what to do if you face discrimination, managing your mental health at work can be a minefield.
I experience mental health conditions including anxiety and depression. One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced has been figuring out how to get the support I need in the workplace. I’ve had a mix of experiences – some fantastically supportive employers, and a couple who treated me unfairly.
“Research suggests that, although issues like stress, anxiety and depression were common among all workplaces before the pandemic, many staff have been struggling even more since the outbreak of coronavirus,” explains Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at Mind, which has found that one in four people experience a mental health problem each year in England.
Now more than ever, we need to know how to get support at work if we’re struggling with our mental health. Here is some expert advice on how we can all access the support we need and deserve.
Ask for reasonable adjustments
“Under the Equality Act 2010, employers have a legal duty to provide reasonable adjustments for an employee who has a disability, which includes mental health problems which have a substantial, adverse, and long-term effect on normal day-to-day activities,” Emma tells Stylist.
“Typically, when it comes to mental health problems, reasonable adjustments are small, inexpensive changes, such as more regular catch-ups with managers, a change of workspace, working hours, or breaks,” says Emma. “If someone struggled with anxiety as a result of commuting in peak times, a reasonable adjustment could be that they start and finish work earlier or later, to avoid rush hour.”
Regular breaks are an important reasonable adjustment for me. When I had to take time off for mental health reasons, I agreed to what’s called a ‘phased return’ to work, which meant I was in for reduced hours to start with, making it less overwhelming. One particularly supportive line manager arranged for us to have a catch up over a coffee each morning after I’d been off, which gave me an opportunity to talk through my workload for the day and share how I was feeling.
Mind has other examples of reasonable adjustments available on their website.
Access occupational health and counselling
Most employers have an occupational health expert for staff to access. This is someone who knows about any adjustments that can be made in the workplace to support employees’ health. Many of them allow you to contact them directly, or else you can ask your line manager or HR to refer you. They can talk through your situation and any support that may help you in the workplace.
“In my role, I’ve seen lots of occupational health reports with recommendations for reasonable adjustments in the workplace, both for physical and mental health issues and I’ve seen those then being implemented by the employer,” Amelia Rout, who works as a branch secretary for the trade union Unison, tells me.
Another option is to look at counselling support. “At many employers, both public and private sector, there’s normally an employee assistance programme, which often allows people to have free access to confidential counselling,” Amelia says.
Details for how to access this counselling can usually be found in your employee handbook or online staff platform, or otherwise ask occupational health, your line manager, or HR if they can refer you. Amelia explains that counselling often starts quite quickly, so it can work well as a stop-gap if you’re on a long waiting list to access NHS support.
Speak to your line manager
If you’re already in a job or have just started somewhere new, you may be thinking of telling your line manager about your mental health condition. I usually try to have this conversation early on so reasonable adjustments can be put in place.
“It’s up to individual employees whether or not they disclose a mental health condition to their employer,” advises Emma. “If you have a mental health problem and you want the protection of the Equality Act, you should tell your employer about it.”
It can be nerve-wracking to start the conversation. I tend to ask my line manager if we can have a confidential chat. When we meet, I say something like: “I just wanted to let you know that I experience anxiety and depression.” Although I’m always anxious in the run-up, I find these conversations really helpful and lead to positive discussions about how best they can support me.
Have a think beforehand if there are any reasonable adjustments you’d like to request. It can help to write down the points you want to make in case you’re worried about forgetting what you want to say.
Decide if you want to disclose your mental health during recruitment
Knowing whether you should disclose your mental health concerns during recruitment is a common worry.
“When it comes to disclosing that you have a disability and/or have a mental health problem to a potential employer during the recruitment process, we would advise you not to,” says Emma. “There is no legal obligation to tell your potential employer and, unfortunately, there is a risk that you could face direct or indirect discrimination if you do.”
Emma explains that it can get complicated if an application form specifically asks about health conditions. If this happens, it’s worth getting advice to talk through your situation, such as from Mind’s legal line.
Some people do prefer to disclose when applying for a job. Amelia says this is important if you’ll need any adjustments in an interview or another part of the recruitment process.
I always wait until I’ve been offered and have accepted a job before disclosing my mental health condition. A job interview is about your skills and experience in relation to the role, and so information about your mental health condition isn’t relevant.
Get help from a mental health first aider
An increasing number of workplaces are introducing mental health first aiders. These are staff members trained in offering support to colleagues who may be experiencing a mental health crisis while at work.
“This is the person first on the scene,” explains Amelia. “So, they are there when you need some support at that moment. They make sure that the person is in a safe place mentally, that they’re not at any immediate risk of harm, and then signpost them to various things that they can then access.”
Mental health first aiders may not be able to provide you with ongoing support but can be someone to speak to if you’re having a particularly difficult mental health day at work. It’s worth finding out whether your workplace has a mental health first aider and who they are, in case you or any of your colleagues ever need their assistance.
Get support if you face discrimination
Sadly, discrimination at work can happen. I’ve experienced it and know how distressing it is.
“Remember that it’s not your fault and that an employer treating someone differently because of disability or mental health is not acceptable, or lawful,” says Emma. “Speak to someone you trust – this might be your line manager or someone else at work. If it’s your manager you feel is discriminating against you, involve your HR team if you have one. If you don’t get anywhere with your employer or HR team, seek legal advice.”
Amelia explains that being a member of a trade union can really help if you’re facing discrimination. “Your first port of call will be to go and see your rep. They would lobby on your behalf to make sure that you are getting the treatment that you need,” she says. They can also refer you to your union’s legal team if required.
When I faced discrimination at work, I accessed advice from my trade union and the Disability Law Service, whose great guidance helped me resolve the situation. It’s important to remember that there is so much support out there to help you move forwards and to navigate mental health at work.
Mind’s legal line is available by phoning 0300 466 6463 (9am to 6pm, Monday to Friday, except for bank holidays) or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, take a look at www.mind.org.uk/work and www.mentalhealthatwork.org.uk.
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters. You can also access the NHS’ list of mental health helplines and organisations.
Additionally, you can ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer.
Images: Getty, Emma Mamo, Amelia Rout