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Naomi Jones and Eleanor Gregan | 30 September 2022

Supporting mental health and wellbeing at work

Conversations around mental health and wellbeing in the workplace

Work in 2022 is a complex place! The mental health experiences of your employees are likely to vary and can have a large impact on your organisation. As an employer, it can feel difficult to know how to best support your people with their mental health and wellbeing. One reason for this is because mental health and wellbeing does not fit into neat, separate boxes of ‘work’ and ‘personal’. Employees come to work carrying their full life experiences and this means that knowing how to respond, what support to offer and what action steps to take is not always clear for employers.

Mental health used to be a taboo topic in the workplace, but now, we see more and more employers putting wellbeing programmes in place, encouraging their people to speak up about their mental health, and understanding both the business and legal consequences of not appropriately addressing mental health and wellbeing at work.

Despite all the positive supportive work that businesses are doing in this space many employers still feel at a loss when faced with an employee experiencing mental health and wellbeing concerns. Employers are unclear about what to do, say and how to act.

We believe that supporting your team’s mental health is a one-size-fits-one approach – designed with the person who needs support in mind. This article won’t provide you with a step-by-step template for mental health and wellbeing matters. Instead, we hope this article offers you awareness around your options and responsibilities as an employer and some strategies to consider.

Employer obligations

Mental health and wellbeing is a spectrum and can look like anything from someone having a low day through to being clinically and seriously unwell.

When it comes to an employee’s mental health, employers have three key obligations:

  1. to deal with employees in good faith, including (but not limited to) being responsive and communicative;
  2. to ensure so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of their workers while they are at work; and
  3. not to discriminate an employee on the basis of a disability (which includes a psychiatric illness), although there are some exceptions to this.

These obligations need to be kept front of mind when supporting employees with their mental health and wellbeing.

Work can be the problem

The Mental Health Foundation reports that 1 in 5 New Zealanders who work reports always or often being stressed by work.

There may be instances where the mental health concern your employee is experiencing is caused by what is going on at work.

As an employer, you are not solely responsible for ensuring an employee’s mental health recovery – experienced medical practitioners and other supports exist to provide these services. Employers do however have health and safety responsibilities towards employees. These responsibilities include identifying the risk factors which may be causing the mental health concern and putting reasonable controls in place to appropriately manage those risks, including ensuring any action taken will not deteriorate your employee’s health.

If an employee's work is negatively impacting their mental health and wellbeing, we suggest that you immediately assess the situation and take any required actions to provide support and resolve the concerns.

How to help

For those employees who are struggling with their mental health, ideally employers can take action that is in sync with the employee’s medical advice to ensure the employee gets the support they need. This is particularly important for those employees with a severe mental health concern.

There may however be situations where an employee is experiencing mental health and wellbeing challenges but does not have medical support in place and/or the cause of the challenges is either unclear or complex. They may share their challenges with you as their employer either to provide you with information, ask for support or for other reasons. As an employer, this can raise several questions:

  1. You are unsure where your responsibilities as an employer start and stop
  2. An employee’s health can affect their ability to do their job, which can impact the business but you don’t know how to appropriately navigate this
  3. Employers are usually balancing many competing priorities including employee health and wellbeing, business performance, team culture etc and this means that choosing a particular course of action is not always simple or straightforward.

When an employee shares with you that their mental health and wellbeing is suffering, first, acknowledge the scale of the decision they have made to share this deeply personal information with you. Thank them for trusting you with this and ask them what they would like you to do with this information before jumping into action.

Mental Wellbeing at Work Plan

If your employee would like your support working through their mental health situation, and it is appropriate for you to do so, one option to consider is a mental wellbeing at work plan. This plan can be a live document and designed with the employee, i.e do not decide what’s right for them without getting their input. A plan can include regular check-ins between you both to:

  • Identify any workplace hazards and risks to their mental health
  • Consult with the employee about workload and work responsibilities, environment, working hours etc. – is there anything that needs to change?
  • Within the employee’s responsibilities, can you identify some agreed high energy tasks and low energy tasks, so the employee can be more in control of how their work and health intertwine on a day to day basis?
  • Clearly agree supports and accommodations the employee needs and what you can reasonably provide in your workplace.
  • Consider whether the employee needs to take some sick leave and / or annual holiday days to rest, recover and take time away from work (this is what these entitlements are for!)

Getting ahead of it

If you would like to take proactive steps to support the mental health and wellbeing of your people before they reach the point of experiencing challenging mental health, there are a number of interventions you could consider:

  • Hear from your people and design your approach with them. Ask your team about wellbeing at 1:1s, in surveys, or have an employee-group dedicated to keeping a pulse on wellbeing
  • Does your business have a wellbeing plan in place, including providing your people with access to professional support services?
  • Ensure you have wellbeing and/or health and safety representatives on the team to support with proactive mental health and wellbeing initiatives
  • Ensure you have health and safety representatives on the team to support with early resolution and mental health and wellbeing initiatives
  • Ensure your managers are trained, supported and have the resources they need to adequately support their team’s mental wellbeing
  • Consider the unique challenges of your workplace and implement relevant and targeted activities e.g. night shift workers are supported in ways that recognises the unique challenges of working unsociable hours

Time to cry halt

Unfortunately there may be times where you need to consider making hard choices about an employee and whether their mental health concerns are making it difficult for you to continue to hold their role open for them in your workplace. You can find some guidance on how to approach a potential medical incapacity situation in this article here: How to support an employee with a long term, or terminal illness

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