Why do line managers not like mental health?

Posted in : HR Updates on 17 December 2018
Olga Pollock
firmus energy
Issues covered:

Managers often get a lot of slack for not doing enough for employee mental health and showing lack of understanding towards mental health issues in the workplace. Often, they are criticised for not caring, turning a blind eye or having a 'pull yourself together' attitude. According to research, almost one third of workers do not feel comfortable talking to their manager about mental health for fear of being judged. There is a perception that once disclosed, they will be viewed as weak, less capable, side-lined for promotion or even ostracised. But does the blame lie solely with managers and their prejudices? Do they all hold the same beliefs that mental health is a stigma and a burden on employers? In my opinion, possibly not. Having both received training on mental health and delivered it I have often seen that very often managers are simply afraid to do or say the wrong thing. They lack the skills and understanding rather than hold prejudicial views. And as such they tend to shy away from supporting a team member who needs help and rely on HR to intervene. But the problem with HR taking over is that very often we don't have a good reputation and are too far removed from the employment relationship. When people think of HR in these circumstances they tend to think 'discipline' and ‘dismissal’ (sorry HR friends!). So, the line manager, should be the go-to person for an employee who's struggling.

Let's use an example of Tom in Finance who doesn't seem to be himself lately. He's become very withdrawn and keeps making mistakes. Now let's assume that Tom who previously was a model employee has recently experienced a traumatic event in his life and as such has been suffering from a mental health condition such as depression. What would happen if Tom's manager got frustrated with Tom for making yet another mistake and threatened to take the matter to HR? On the other hand, imagine Tom's manager noticed the change in his behaviour lately. He or she had spotted the signs of a mental health issue and decided to have a quiet word with Tom in a confidential setting.

In each scenario you'd expect the outcome to be very different. In the first example it wouldn't be unrealistic to assume that Tom would feel very upset after the initial conversation with his manager and the threat of HR intervention. It's likely that he would report in sick shortly afterwards possibly leading to a period of long-term absence and eventual resignation or dismissal.

But if we explore what might happen if Tom's manager showed some compassion and support towards him, the outcome could be very different. In this case Tom's manager should initiate an early conversation. It is important to be aware that Tom's manager is not expected to be a medical professional or counsellor. It is not his or her job to diagnose Tom’s condition but to simply listen, ask questions, support and signpost Tom to professional help. Questions should be open and non-judgemental. Simply asking closed questions such as, 'Are you ok?' will likely lead to a yes / no response. Framing the question differently such as 'You don't seem to be yourself lately. Why is this the case?' will open up a very different response and should encourage dialogue. Obviously speaking calmly, maintaining eye contact and avoiding disruptions are essential.

The manager should ask Tom if he has seen his GP and if not, the manager should encourage him to do so as a first step. It is also useful to signpost the employee to the organisation's Employee Assistance Programme (if there is one) as well as external support through the likes of charities such as Mind, Action Mental Health or Lifeline. It is usually beneficial to seek the advice of Occupational Health who will provide employer-focused recommendations based on the diagnosis of the GP. Consent for attendance at OH is required but it should be explained to Tom that it is in his best interests to attend OH to ensure that he is best supported in the workplace. At the end of the conversation the manager should summarise what was discussed along with any actions to be taken.

Upon receipt of the OH report a further meeting should take place with Tom. The report should outline what adjustments or accommodations are recommended and whether Tom's mental health diagnosis is likely to fall under the DDA. Where this is the case, employers have a statutory duty to make reasonable adjustments; another important factor to consider for those managers tempted to ignore mental health issues. Possible adjustments need not be drastic. Equal amounts of break time throughout the day but in shorter, more frequent chunks will not be too disruptive, nor will a change to the workspace to a quieter space with dividing partitions. Flexible working arrangements or changes to work start and end times may also be helpful on a temporary or permanent basis but the main thing to remember is that regular reviews should be agreed, and adjustments modified if needed. A Wellness Action Plan is a great tool to put in place to allow both the manager and the employee input into a support framework designed to keep the employee in work and discourage absence.

Above all, creating a culture of openness, understanding and support is key in creating an environment where employees like Tom can feel supported without fear of stigma or reprisal. Not only do we have a moral duty to address mental health at work, there are sound business reasons too such as improved productivity, retention, attendance and engagement. As such line management training is key. It is essential that managers have the skills and confidence to address mental health in the workplace and are supported by a robust mental health and wellbeing policy, sickness absence policy and other resources including HR, Occupational Health, EAP and external bodies.

Useful reading:

Institute for Employment Studies: Health, work and wellbeing 

Action Mental Health 



This article is correct at 17/12/2018

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Olga Pollock
firmus energy

The main content of this article was provided by Olga Pollock. Contact telephone number is +44 (0)79 7389 3448 or email oppollock@firmusenergy.co.uk

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