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11 Dec. 2019 | Comments (0)

What principles, priorities and desired outcomes should inform the design and implementation of a corporate mental health policy – specifically one that is created to respond to episodes of mental illness experienced by employees rather than just addressing more generally mental health and wellbeing?

A first priority and desired outcome is early disclosure. The sooner an individual’s vulnerability to mental illness is revealed, the more effective will be any medical, social and corporate interventions designed to respond to the symptoms of any episode. Early intervention can cut the recovery time needed by the individual from months to weeks or even days, reducing the length of sickness to manageable proportions.

Early disclosure is by far the most challenging priority of any policy because it requires an open and transparent corporate culture in which the individual feels safe in admitting to the condition to his or her colleagues and supervisors. This, in turn, requires mental illness to be free of stigma and capable of being openly discussed during selection procedures, performance reviews and evaluation exercises.

In most organisations, this requires a substantial change in the attitudes of both managers at all levels and the workforce as a whole – and the basic principles of change management apply. Senior managers should use the launch of any mental health policy to lead discussions about its priorities and desired outcomes at all levels of the organisation, possibly collaborating with local mental health charities to run regular mental health awareness seminars. These should ideally be presented by, and draw on the testimony of, people with lived experience of mental health problems, during which workplace attitudes and concerns about mental health issues can be aired and addressed. (Note: ‘Lived Experience’ is the accepted phrase used by the international mental health community to describe people who suffer from episodic mental illness.)

The appointment of Mental Health First-Aiders – representatives from the workforce trained to support people experiencing mental distress with confidential advice about the help and support available to them- is often a very effective way to instil and foster the culture required.

This training should also be extended to all supervisors and line managers, who have daily contact with employees in their care and who are most likely to be first to spot atypical behaviour that might presage an episode of mental distress.

Working with the expertise provided by external charities, specialist HR practitioners or occupational health managers, line managers and supervisors should develop the ability to sound out in confidence any of their direct reports who are exhibiting the early signs of mental distress and assess what support the individual requires during periods of recovery.

(It is worth stressing at this point that consultation with line managers and supervisors by one of the authors of this blog revealed that most respondents were not prejudiced against people with a history of mental illness but terrified because they did not know how to respond and felt completely disempowered.)

A key element of this support is reasonable adjustments to working time and conditions, either introduced permanently or on a staged basis during periods of recovery. These might include flexible starting and finishing times, for example to avoid crowded and stressful commuter travelling; regular rest breaks during working hours; access to private working space or rest areas; reduced performance targets and time off for essential medical consultation or counselling.

The more the individual can be involved in the discussions that inform and determine these adjustments, the more effective they will prove. Employees with mental health problems should be encouraged to brief line managers and supervisors on the early signals that might presage an episode of their condition and the specific reasonable adjustments that will aid their recovery. Well-being questions should also be included within regular manager-and-employee coaching conversations, again to ensure that potential mental health and workplace stress issues are spotted and addressed early on.

Wherever possible, below-par performance or atypical and inappropriate behaviour exhibited by employees should be treated as a health issue to be resolved by line managers, HR practitioners and occupational health experts rather than a disciplinary one resulting in the marginalisation or dismissal of the individual concerned.

Discussions about the impact and symptoms of mental distress or stress induced conditions, should  form a regular feature of team building and project management planning, with the attitudes and concerns of all team members expressed and addressed, together with solutions that address the needs of the affected individual and his or her colleagues.

Where the individual admits to a history of mental illness, there needs to be an accompanying reassurance that the condition is being treated clinically and that the organisation is playing a leading role in facilitating this treatment. This is critically important to avoid a damaging conflict of interest confronting the organisation between its duty of care to the affected individual and its duty of care to work colleagues and team members who might be on the receiving end of inappropriate behaviour and would otherwise have justifiable grounds for initiating grievance claims.

In all the dealings and interactions that arise from these practices, the organisation, first and foremost, should respect the confidence of the individual, so that mutual trust can be maintained and contribute to the culture of disclosure the organisation is trying to engender. While the open disclosure of mental illness is the ultimate aim of any policy, individuals with lived experience of this kind of  illness are bound to feel reluctant to admit to their history of past or current episodes until they can be reassured that it will not impact negatively on their career and personal standing.

Line managers, specialist HR practitioners, mental first aiders and occupational health specialists must always place the individual’s wishes for privacy as part of their duty of care. Respecting confidence through the application of ethical counselling and appraisal standards, while at the same time encouraging disclosure through the promotion of equitable and empathetic recruitment and talent management practices, should be the hallmark of any policy in this field.

A final priority,also drawing on established change management canons, is introducing formal measures that allow line managers, supervisors and senior executives to assess the effectiveness of the policy and the benefits it provides. These might include the length and cost of sickness leave; the sense of wellbeing expressed both by employees in staff consultation exercises and individuals in their performance assessments; the sense of well-being expressed by the company’s top talent in their appraisals; and the results of benchmarking exercises informed by feedback from local charities, government agencies and specialist research organisations.

With this in mind, we will be addressing two important questions in our final blog of the series– how are employers generally progressing in launching and implementing mental health policies and which companies are exemplars of good practice and why?

  • About the Author:Michel Syrett

    Michel Syrett

    Michel Syrett is a Senior Human Capital Fellow at The Conference Board. He has had a bipolar diagnosis since 1997 and is a founding member of The Lived Experience Research Collective at the UK Mental …

    Full Bio | More from Michel Syrett

  • About the Author:Marion Devine

    Marion Devine

    Marion Devine is Senior Researcher in Human Capital for Europe, based in TCB’s Brussels office.  Marion brings a European perspective to TCB’s HC work and contributes across a broad s…

    Full Bio | More from Marion Devine


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