• Holly Jackson

Support And Sensitivity: Managing Mental Health And Disability In The Workplace



The drive from the government to keep people with mental health conditions in work is greater than ever before.


And yet, approximately 300,000 people a year lose their jobs due to long-term mental illness (Thriving At Work Report, 2017), with 50% more people with mental health problems having to stop work, than those without a mental health condition.


In fact, as many as 9% of all people presenting with symptoms of a mental health difficulty have experienced ‘disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal’.


When managing behaviour in the workplace, the expectations for employers may not always be clear cut.


If, for example, one member of staff is off ill for a long period of time, and the management cannot afford to pay two, the other members of staff will have to work overtime to cover their shift. This may therefore affect the rest of the team’s mental health.


Similarly, if an employee starts becoming irritable, hostile, or even aggressive in the workplace, is it more appropriate to give them a warning, an occupational health referral, or a dismissal?


And could stress from work be contributing to an employee’s mental ill-health, and could the present situation have been managed, or even avoided entirely in the first place?




The Law


When considering what role management should take where performance is adversely affected by mental health difficulties in the workplace, two questions should be considered:


• Does the individual’s mental health condition impact their ability to do their job?


AND


• Has the management attempted to put all reasonable adjustments in place to enable the employee to improve their performance?




In Short…


The employer has a duty to do everything in their power to make the workplace as accessible as possible; you may be required to evidence that you have done this in the future.


If you have not done this from the very beginning, any unmet targets for employees could arguably be due to a lack of managerial support for those with disabilities, or even a form of discrimination.


Employers are liable for any discrimination perpetuated by employees unless they can evidence having taken every step possible to eliminate the chances of this happening.


It is your duty as an employer to make the workplace as open, accessible and supportive for all members of staff, and to tackle any ignorance surrounding mental health and disability through proactive training and disciplinary procedures for those who act in a discriminatory manner.


There are some conditions which are not covered by the Equality Act due to potential impact of behaviour on others; this includes people who suffer from alcoholism, drug addiction, and kleptomania (compulsive stealing).





Be Proactive, Not Reactive


Adjustments to make the workplace more suitable for those with mental health difficulties and/or disability should be made as collaboratively and far in advance as possible.


The law recognises that people with disabilities may have fluctuations in their performance just like any other worker; as such, employers can still undertake disciplinary procedures but every possible reasonable adjustment should be made before they do so, or they may be taken to an employment tribunal.


Similarly, people with mental health difficulties may commit violence in the workplace, but they are no more likely to do so than other employees, and any emerging stress or agitation should be handled with reasonable adjustments before it becomes problematic.


When arranging how you will support employees with mental health conditions and disabilities, it may be helpful to think of it in four stages:




Stage 1: Before Hiring


Before you hire any members of staff, you should be considering how to make your building and work environment as accessible as possible. This is when you should consider:



• Protocol - If a staff member becomes unwell, how will you cover for their absence and how will you help them to manage their illness? Are there any forms/evidence that they will need to present?


• Entrances/Exits - Are they accessible?


• ‘Quiet Areas’ - Do you have places in the building that your employees can go if they need to de-escalate and take time out?


• What Mental Health and Disability training will you provide?


• Do you have a system for de-escalating staff-to-staff friction and stressful scenarios?


• Can you arrange extra support, for example mentoring, counselling, and/or staff lunchtime wellbeing groups?


• Risk Assessments - Lots of workplaces are aware that risk assessments should be undertaken for potential accidents, but are less aware of the ‘human factor’.


Consider risk assessments for fall risk (stairways, trip risks etc), workplace violence (e.g. Could certain equipment be used as a weapon? Are the exits easily accessible?).


• Do you need to re-format any materials, purchase extra equipment, print some materials in a larger font, or invest in overlays for employees with dyslexia?




Stage 2: At Recruitment


You should NOT ask if the candidate has a mental health condition or disability; asking questions about health during a job interview is illegal under the Equality Act 2010.


There are a few exemptions:



• Employers may ask if a participant is able to take an assessment to test for job requirements, or to offer reasonable adjustments throughout the recruitment process.


The Access To Work program can help to cover the costs of making reasonable adjustments.


• To find out if an applicant will be able to carry out ‘intrinsic’ job functions WITH reasonable adjustments


• To find out if an applicant has a disability ONLY where having that disability is a professional requirement; for example, a film company recruiting an actor with lived experience to improve representation.


• For Equality And Diversity monitoring - with a positive view to improving recruitment for those with a diagnosed disability and/or mental health condition.


• To take positive action for people with disabilities - offering workplace schemes, grants, equipment etc.



If an applicant volunteers information about a mental health condition and/or disability:



• Ask if there are any adjustments you should put in place to support them. This may include flexible hours, adjusted roles, and extra equipment.


• Focus on what they can do, not what they find difficult.


• Use this to plan how you will adapt the workplace to be as supportive as possible for your new employee.







Stage 3: Beginning Work


If your employee has a diagnosed mental health difficulty or learning disability, there are several ways that you can support them, right from their very first day:



• Wellness Action Plans (WAP plans) - Some people who have a diagnosed mental health condition may choose to do a Wellness Action Plan; this is a workbook that is done between the individual and the employer, detailing what keeps them well, what they struggle with, and measures that can be put in place to help them overcome difficulties.


By formulating a WAP plan with your employee, you will have put a strategy in place for managing any difficulties that may arise further down the line.


• Mentoring/checking in - It’s usually a good idea to schedule in regular time to catch up with your employees.


This time can be used to assess employee performance targets, plan out the next coming weeks, and of course, check in with their wellbeing. If you’re a small company, a quick informal chat in a private room would work fine.


If you’re part of a larger company, you might find it easier to delegate peer mentors. Have a think about which options are more constructive for your organisation.


• Representatives - Nominating a few select representatives for equality and diversity is a good way of ensuring all voices are heard within your organisation. Why not discuss starting a panel with your employees?


• Flexible work hours - Would your employee benefit from flexible work hours? Examples may include a later start for an employee with depression who takes longer getting up in the mornings, or an earlier finish for someone with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).




Stage 4: Day-To-Day


• Keep an eye on your employees’ mental and physical health and notice any changes. If they appear to be becoming more anxious, withdrawn, agitated, aggressive, ill, or in pain, they may need some time off.


• Make referrals to occupational health where necessary; it’s better to overreact than underreact!


• Allow employees time out where needed.


• Be flexible where required - if an employee is starting to become distressed, they may need to leave to de-escalate.


• Encourage good practice with regards to physical health; poor physical health may lead to ongoing pain and discomfort which can impact on mental health and associated behaviour.


Gentle physical exercise classes during lunch periods, such as yoga or the Alexander Technique, may be useful in alleviating both physical pain and psychological stress.


• If attendance is a repeated problem, even where reasonable adjustments and sick leave is put in place, or if agitated or aggressive behaviour becomes problematic, employers should seek legal advice before taking disciplinary action.



Conclusion


By staying prepared and engaging with your employees about their requirements, you can create an equal, diverse, and supportive workplace that can manage any difficulties before they arise.


So be proactive, put the wheels in motion, and become a Mindful Employer!

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