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Anxiety and depression – how to manage them in the workplace

April 28, 2015

Instances of anxiety and depression in the workplace have become much more common in recent years; it’s a matter of record. For example, the number of mental health related absences in the NHS last year showed a two-fold increase since 2010, and on average in the UK 23 days are lost for each case of stress, depression or anxiety.

Whilst these statistics may not exactly represent the state of mental health in your business, it’s worth thinking about. Not least because mental health issues affect more people in the UK than you might think, about four in ten adults having experienced anxiety about their work in 2014.

So, as an employer, what should you do if one of your employees encounters mental health issues? If they’re work-related especially, what is expected of a business?

Are anxiety and depression always a disability in employment?

The first thing that an employer might ask themselves is; “Where do I stand legally?” i.e. do you need to treat staff differently under the law if they encounter mental health issues? It’s a potential minefield, but there’s information to help employers start to understand what to do.

A recent Employment Appeal Tribunal has highlighted this very issue. Saad vs. University Hospital Southampton heard claims of discrimination from Mr. Saad after his contract was not renewed by his employer. He claimed that due to his anxiety he was in fact disabled, and shouldn’t have been expected to undertake his daily duties in the same way.

However, the tribunal decided that he was not in fact classed as disabled under current equality legislation. His only hindrance from his affliction was that he could struggle with medical text books and interacting with his colleagues – rather than everyday activities such as getting dressed, or leaving the house that would have meant he was in fact disabled.

It may well appear to be a clear-cut decision, but this will rarely be the case when it comes to disability discrimination – especially with mental health issues. Therefore it’s important for employers to understand that this doesn’t set an automatic precedent to fall back on. When it happens to someone in your business, it may be totally different.

How to manage anxiety or depression in the workplace

Mental health issues need to be considered on a case by case basis, it’s something that can be classed as a disability for some, but not for others. Especially if it affects how they live their everyday life.

So, how should an employer handle a mental health issue in the workplace?

For a start, you shouldn’t panic or jump to any conclusions. As mentioned, taking them on a case by case basis, and not assuming that work is the only factor here is a good start. Anxiety and depression are more complex than many people imagine, and as such can be set off by any number of different triggers – not necessarily those you’d expect.

Consider how it affects the individual

Once you have identified that a member of staff has an issue with stress, anxiety or depression one of the first things to do, is to think about the long term impact of the illness on your employee.

How will this affect the individual, and what might they have to stop doing what they could have done before? Might the condition fluctuate? The answers to these questions will inform how employers work with the employee during the course of any rehabilitation, but it’s worth seeking professional medical advice to inform any important judgements first.

Help employees to return to work

It’s crucial for employers to ensure that they help get employees back to work as smoothly and effectively as possible. One way in which you can do this, is to first ensure employers have an open-door policy on the subject of mental health.

If an employee is feeling stressed, it’s best to have them speak to you about it first, before it develops into a larger and more complex issue. People with anxiety also often feel that it’s a stigmatising condition, so making them feel it’s fine to talk it over is one step towards getting them back on their feet. You can also point them towards relevant health services should they need them.

Only once it becomes a serious or recurring problem should employers consider that it may be counted as a disability under employment law.

At this point, employers will need to consider things such as whether they have problems leaving their home; if so, employers could suggest they work remotely for a short period? Or perhaps, if the employee struggles to get going in the morning, the employer can offer more flexible working hours – that way they are still given the opportunity to work when they can.

Draw up a Stress and Wellbeing Policy

Another good way for employers to proactively manage the impact of mental health conditions in their workplace is to have a proactive Stress and Wellbeing policy.

This could mention signs to look out for, to help identify someone who may be struggling. These signs can include;

  • Uuncharacteristically high sickness levels
  • Short notice holiday requests
  • Missing deadlines
  • Working excessive hours
  • Snappy and irritable behaviour.

From here, it can aid them in deciding what action to take (either by a manager or the individual) and the support network that can be put in place.

Conduct a risk assessment

If an employee appears to be suffering from stress at work, then it is worthwhile undertaking a risk assessment to look at a variety of indicators and help identify the possible triggers for stress.

As a result employers or managers can then take appropriate action to reduce the risk of an employee becoming unwell, or being absent as a result of stress.

Treat employees fairly and reasonably

Mental health may be better understood and more widely discussed now than in previous decades, but with regard to employment law it’s still a complex issue.

It’s certainly no easier to manage, and so it’s understandable that employers may be daunted by the prospect an employee might tell them they’re depressed or anxious. However, as long as employers remember to treat them fairly and reasonably, within the law, they should be able to steer clear of any major issues whilst getting their employee back on their feet.

About the author

This article was written for ByteStart by Kirsty Senior, a Co-Founder and Director of citrusHR, the refreshingly simple HR software and support service for small business.

More help on ByteStart

For more tips and guidance on staff related issues, try some of our other guides;