How to manage mental health issues

Mental health problems are a major concern for employees, which is why employers need to devise a robust strategy to support them in the workplace.

At any one time, about one in six workers is experiencing mental health difficulties, according to Taking care of business, Employers’ guide to mentally healthy workplaces, published by Mind in May 2010. The most common issues are anxiety, depression and unmanageable stress.

Mental health problems can originate outside work or from work-related factors, especially those related to the organisation of work that result in prolonged exposure to stress.

Mental health issues can cause absenteeism, presenteeism, and increased staff turnover. They therefore represent a significant economic cost to employers that needs addressing.

Comprehensive strategy

The starting point for addressing mental wellbeing in the workplace is to develop a comprehensive health strategy. This should be established in partnership with all key stakeholders.

A strategy gives a sense of ownership to staff, a clear message of the commitment of senior management, and helps to raise awareness of mental health issues in the workplace. It creates an environment where discussion of mental health issues is encouraged.

The precise nature of a policy should be tailored to each individual workplace. However, it should address measures aimed at promoting mental wellbeing and preventing mental ill-health; appropriate staff training in relation to mental health issues; support for employees with mental health problems to carry on working, or to return to work after a period of absence; and recruitment and selection practices.

Appropriate training

Line managers play a crucial role in promoting and supporting staff mental wellbeing. Poor line management can exacerbate or cause mental health issues through, for example, the manner of day-to-day interactions with staff, and the ways in which work is designed and distributed. So, appropriate training must be provided to line managers, by an external agency if appropriate.

Training should include awareness of the impact that managers’ behaviour might have on employees’ mental health and how to deal with this. It should also address how to recognise early signs of mental health problems in staff, and how to initiate interventions to help an employee remain at work, such as a reallocation of duties, flexible working or longer breaks.

Similar issues are relevant to return-to-work planning after long-term absence, which may be on a staged return basis. The nature of any interventions to support employees to stay at work, or to return after absence, should be determined in collaboration with the employee, and any other relevant parties, for example occupational health and human resources.

Specialist support

Line managers should also be aware of when they need to refer the employee on for more specialist support, such as that provided under an employee assistance programme.

Some employees will already have experience of mental health problems when they apply for a job, so it is important to ensure recruitment and selection policies are non-discriminatory. Some people’s mental health problem may constitute a disability under the Equality Act 2010 and if they choose to disclose such a disability, reasonable adjustment may be needed at the recruitment and selection stage, or once they begin work.

Staff also have a responsibility to look after their mental health, so employers should provide relevant information. Training should be offered in relation to issues such as resilience building, time management and stress management.


  • Workplace mental health problems cost UK employers about £26 billion a year.
  • Employers’ health strategies should promote mental wellbeing and the prevention of mental ill health.
  • A mental health problem may constitute a disability under the Equality Act 2010.

Doctor Sue Cowan is programme director for the MSC in business psychology at Heriot-Watt University