Supporting staff who are experiencing mental health problems

Meeting group work

Managers have an important role to play in supporting staff that are experiencing mental health problems. This involves supporting employees in the workplace and supporting them back to work after a period of absence.

Managers can have a huge impact on supporting their staff by communicating, listening, being open to adjustments where required and by providing support and signposting as necessary.

Everyone’s experience of mental health is different and two people experiencing the same condition may have entirely different symptoms, signs, behaviours and coping mechanisms. It is therefore important not to focus on the diagnosis but on how it impacts on the individual’s work.

Opening up a conversation

Managers may want to open up a conversation with their staff members about their mental health but may feel uncomfortable doing so. It is entirely natural for line managers to feel anxious as they may be unsure what the reaction or outcome will be. It is important that the line manager is clear about the reason they are speaking to the member of staff. It is also important to emphasise that the objective of the conversation is to support the wellbeing of the member of staff.

There are a number of reasons why the manager might want to speak to the member of staff and this could include things such as changes in the individual’s behaviour, poorer performance, starting to turn up late or other signs that the manager or colleagues have noticed.

It is important for managers to be seen as approachable and having time for their staff. Regular catch ups with staff are an opportunity to start a conversation about mental health and wellbeing and for it to be seen as a normal part of line management.

MIND / CIPD guidance (page 21) provides a conversation checklist that managers may find helpful when preparing to speak to staff about mental health. The checklist includes things such as listening actively and carefully, encouraging the employee to talk and following up from the meeting in writing, especially any agreed actions or support.

Managers should also be clear with the member of staff about the confidentiality of the discussion. For example, following the discussion, the manager may wish to speak to human resources or occupational health so managers need to agree with the member of staff what information from the meeting can be shared and with whom.

Mind / CIPD guidance also includes a list of questions (page 23) that managers can use to start a conversation with their staff, which may help to dispel some of the fears an individual may have. These should help to shape the conversation with the member of staff rather than being used as checklist. The questions are listed below:

  • How are you doing at the moment?
  • You seem a bit down / upset / under pressure / frustrated / angry. Is everything OK?
  • I’ve noticed you’ve been arriving late recently and I wondered if you’re OK.
  • I’ve noticed the reports are late when they’re usually on time.  Is everything OK?
  • Is there anything I can do to help?
  • What would you like to happen? How?
  • What support do you think might help?
  • Have you spoken to your GP or looked for help anywhere else?

The guide also contains information on how to respond if an employee discloses a mental health problem as well as details of a wellness recovery action plan (WRAP). The details of how to respond if an employee discloses a mental health problem can be found in the guide above (page 23) but the broad approach focuses on:

  • avoiding making assumptions
  • embedding confidentiality
  • encouraging people to talk
  • responding flexibly
  • seeking advice if you need to.

Managers and their member of staff may find it useful to put in place a WRAP which outlines:

  • what the signs and symptoms of the mental health problem in the member of staff may be
  • what the triggers may be and what support can be offered
  • who should be contacted in event of a crisis. 

Making reasonable adjustments

When employers are aware of health or disability information about an individual, they have a legal duty to consider making reasonable adjustments as well as a general duty of care and responsibility for employee health and preventing personal injury.

Making reasonable adjustments can often be straightforward and low cost and comes down to treating the member of staff as an individual.  NHS Employers has produced detailed guidance on making reasonable adjustments which includes examples of what adjustments could be made. Some of these are:

  • allowing an employee time off to attend medical appointments
  • modifying a job description to take away tasks that cause particular difficulty
  • offering flexibility in working hours/patterns, i.e. reduced hours or working from home
  • transfer of workplace
  • social or cognitive support
  • training
  • providing support to overcome barriers to returning to the workplace.

The Department of Health and Social Care published advice on workplace adjustments which includes information on when to make an adjustment as well as some practical examples.

Return to work meeting

If a member of staff has been absent, managers should carry out a return to work meeting. The meeting indicates that the manager wants to take the time to find out how the staff member is and it is an opportunity to explore any underlying reasons for the absence. An effective meeting can ensure that mental health problems are identified at an early stage and the necessary support can be put in place.

NHS Employers has provided information on how to conduct a return to work meeting which managers who are supporting staff with a mental health problem might find helpful. The information covers the general principles that should be followed and how the meeting should be conducted.

Keeping in contact

If a member of staff does need to take time off due to a mental health problem, then it is important that the line manager keeps in contact with them while they are absent. Positive and regular contact is crucial and can help to ensure that the employee feels supported and valued as well as helping to avoid feelings of isolation.

Weekly contact is recommended for employees who are likely to be off for a number of weeks. Every circumstance will be slightly different due to the nature of the mental health problem, the frequency of contact should be discussed and agreed with the employee so they know how they will continue to be supported. Managers may want to discuss with the member of staff how much information the member of staff would like shared with colleagues about the reason for their absence.

Rapid access schemes

Line managers may want to consider whether the member of staff would benefit from any rapid access schemes that the organisation may operate. Increasingly, evidence suggests that early intervention in a period of sickness is effective in keeping people in work or in helping them return to the workplace more quickly. There are benefits for both the organisation and the member of staff.

Rapid access schemes will often mean that the organisation gets a valued member of staff back earlier than expected while the member of staff feels valued by a caring employer, which may help to aid their recovery. 

Take a look at our rapid access guidance and also read how Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust put staff health and wellbeing at the centre of its strategy to reduce sickness absence and presenteeism.

Therapeutic return, phased return and return to work plans

Managers may also want to explore the possibility of supporting their staff with a therapeutic return, a phased return or a return to work plan. Therapeutic return allows the member of staff to make links with the workplace prior to a full return to work. This may include steps like coming into the workplace for a meeting with their manager or colleagues to have an informal catch up, attending team meetings and/or time outs.

Phased return allows the member of staff to gradually return back to the workplace over an agreed period of time while a return to work plan is agreed between the manager, the member of staff, human resources and occupational health in order to support the member of staff back in to the workplace.

Other resources

While managers are not expected to be mental health experts, the measures highlighted above will help to support their members of staff. Managers can also seek support from human resources within their organisation, their occupational health provider or from expert organisations.

These are available to the member of staff as well if necessary and are valuable resources to tap into.

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