Is anxiety, depression or another mental health illness affecting your professional life? Here’s how to make your office a happier and healthier place to work

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After months of working from home many of us are gearing up to return to the office and after such a turbulent year of uncertain times, it's only natural to feel anxious ahead of returning to work. If you’re suffering from a mental health illness and want to raise it with your boss, but are worried that doing so will affect your career, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Debilitating for many, but disclosed by few, many of us choose to keep it a secret when speaking out could prove a valuable step in the road to recovery.

“One in four of us in the UK will suffer from a mental health problem each year, so even if this doesn’t seem like an issue for you right now, the likelihood is that it will be something you think about over the course of your career,” says CBT therapist Phanella Mayall Fine. “Ruby Wax - who had been awarded an OBE for her services to mental health - made headlines when she advocated keeping quiet when it comes to mental health at work. I see where she’s coming from – there are still taboos around mental health, much more so than physical illness – but, in my opinion, this is bad advice: pessimistic at best, certain to perpetuate negative stereotypes around mental health and at worst, can be downright dangerous.”

A confusing area for employees and employers to navigate in terms of support and protocol, how best to create a positive and productive plan of action that caters for both boss and staff? We asked Phanella and Sarah Boulton-Jones, Senior HR Advisor at Gap HR Services  to provide their top tips and advice when it comes to telling your manager and the implementation of good company policies.

If you’re an employee...

1. Share (but you don’t have to bare all)

Telling your manager about your mental health problem can be liberating - especially if keeping it a secret for a length of time has taken its toll. To start off discussions on the right footing, keep the lines of communications as clear and concise as best you can. “Overall, we know that having good, honest communication with your boss is one of the most important factors in both enjoying and progressing at work - being honest about your mental health is no different,” says Phanella. “Now, what I’m not advocating is laying yourself completely bare. Honesty in a work sense and honesty with, say, your best friend after a few drinks on a Friday night, are two different things. But when you do experience mental health issues that have a serious impact on how you go about your day to day, the best thing is to lay your cards on the table.”

2. Be aware of your rights

As frightening as it may be share this side of yourself with your superior, disclosure could hold the key to greater legal protection. “Aside from the communication and relationship, to get the protection of the Equality Act (for a mental health problem that is a disability - what that means is a mental (or physical) condition that has a substantial, long-term, adverse effect on your normal daily activities), you need to have disclosed your mental health issue to your employer,” explains Phanella.

3. Choose your confidant wisely

Relationships with bosses differ from person to person and company to company. If your boss isn’t the easiest person to talk to in this regard, human resources could act as the perfect middle man for managing your problem going forward and ensuring that processes are properly observed. “You know your boss and employer best. A very supportive environment might lower your threshold for sharing your mental health issue, whereas an unsympathetic boss and tough employer might make you, rightly, much more cautious about what you share,” says Phanella. “Going to HR rather than directly to your boss is always an option,” she adds. “You can disclose the situation to them in confidence and they can support you with the next steps – how to ask for any time off you might need, what your rights are.” Think of this as a valuable first port of call though. “But at the end of the day, if you do need some leeway or temporary special measures, at some point your boss will need to know,” advises Phanella.

4. Find the balance between personal and professional

When the day does come to raise the issue with your boss, framing your discussions around your ability to fulfil your work obligations will definitely help in driving home the message of the effect your particular problem is having on your day to day duties. “Try – as far as possible – to stay professional,” says Phanella. “Keep the boundaries between your private self and work self intact – give matter of fact explanations rather than an in depth, blow by blow personal account and be selective about how much you disclose, keeping it to what they need to know. Explain briefly what the issue is, how it’s impacting you and what measures you feel you need to put in place to manage that, whether through temporary flexible working or some time off.”

Be clear about what the issue is, how it’s impacting you at work and what you need from your boss to be able to manage things

5. Get your paperwork in order

If you’ve sought the help of a professional, bring any documentation with you to provide further details about your condition to act as an independent second opinion. “Provide more information, including a doctor’s note and, if appropriate, resources on mental health problems. The Mind website  is a great starting point,” advises Phanella.

She adds, “Give them parameters. What adjustments do you need? And, importantly, how is the issue being treated outside of work?” Coming prepared with the measures you feel would best benefit your recovery will afford you a greater level over control over the next steps, to ensure they fit you and not the other way around.

6. Work with your boss to create a plan of action

View the process as collaborative to best devise a productive method going forward that allows you to balance both work and health commitments equally. “Be clear about what the issue is, how it’s impacting you at work and what you need from your boss to be able to manage things,” advises Phanella. “In setting out a management plan, be as explicit as possible, for example, ‘I would like to leave at 4pm every Wednesday to see my therapist’ is better than, ‘I’ll sometimes need to take time off for therapy sessions.’”

Also research beforehand any policies that your company may have in place. “Take advantage of any support already available from your employer, whether that’s a mentor programme, employee assistance programme or a global agile work policy that could allow, for example, some flexibility without having to make a special application,” says Phanella. “Be clear about timings. If you know, say, you are undergoing a two-month course of CBT, let them know.”

This also applies to being prepared for the worst-case scenario should your boss be less than the understanding sort. “If things do go wrong, know your rights,” says Phanella. “Your internal HR should support you on this but look externally to charities like Mind which have clear, easy to understand explanations of the legal position and can refer you on for further support if necessary.”

MORE GLOSS: 10 ways to overcome anxiety

If you’re an employer...

1. Create clarity

With mental health awareness in the spotlight more than ever, the best way to best protect yours, your employee's and your company’s interests is to make sure your policy on such matters is well-advised from the get-go and constantly updated to reflect changes in law. “It is vital that both the employer and employee follow the procedures in place to avoid misunderstandings,” advises Sarah Boulton-Jones. “An employer is usually first alerted to a mental health problem by an employee’s absence record or by performance issues. Once an employee’s mental health issues start to impact on the work they are carrying out or their attendance at work, then it is likely to fall under the Company’s sickness and absence policy. It is vital that a business responds correctly – mental illnesses can constitute a disability and so could leave a business open to an expensive tribunal claim.”

Not only will this help provide legal protection, but will best guide employer and employee regarding the procedure going forward. “It should be clear from the policy who employees should approach (normally their line manager or an HR representative) and line managers should receive training so that they know what to do with such information and how to offer support,” advises Sarah. “Many managers find it difficult when an employee approaches them with this kind of issue, as though the expectation is on them to provide some kind of counselling or support. This isn’t the case (although it would be great if they could respond sensibly), but they do need to discuss this with their HR department.”

“The policy should clearly set out the absence procedures, who the employee must notify, and by when if they are unable to attend work, and what certification they must provide,” Sarah adds. “A good policy will also reserve the right to request that an employee undergo a medical assessment by a doctor. A business can’t make an employee consent to a medical referral, but it can request that the employer consent to its approaching a doctor for further information regarding the illness, should it deem it necessary.”

2. Work with your HR department

To ensure proper protocol is adhered to, work in partnership with your human resources department to best advise on the most appropriate procedure. “The employer should consult their HR department or an HR consultant for advice to ensure that they comply with their legal obligations,” says Sarah. “If the matter is not handled well, it can result in employers paying an employee who is absent for long-term sickness when it isn’t necessary, or leave a business vulnerable to a tribunal claim for disability discrimination.”

3. Take an active interest in the mental health of your employees

To help provide the most useful assistance to your employee, checking in with your team regularly could make all the difference in ensuring any problems are caught early. “Line managers should be encouraged to watch for any signs that the employee needs assistance, for example, a dip in their standards of work and not to be afraid to discuss concerns with an employee,” advises Sarah. “I have known instances when a manager has had to take an employee aside and urge them to see a doctor and to take time off. Some employees try to keep on working through and hope that work might provide a distraction to the difficulties in their life. An employer can’t make an employee go home sick, but they can strongly suggest that the employee seek help or take some time to rest.”

4. Opt for planning over proof

While you’re completely within your rights to ask for further information, make it clear that this is a productive step as opposed to a combative one, to ensure that the situation is dealt with using the delicacy and understanding it requires. “It is crucial that the employer understands the difficulties facing the employee. They may ask for the employee’s permission to get a full medical report from a doctor. This isn’t because they don’t believe the employee, but so that they can have all of the information required to understand how they can assist,” explains Sarah. “Without this, the employer can’t know how severe the illness is and what they might be able to do to help.”

5. Be prepared to make reasonable adjustments

“If the employee’s illness is so severe, it could even be classed as a disability, in which case the employer has a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments to assist the employee at work,” advises Sarah. “Sometimes, an employee may need to work shortened hours for a period, or may need to leave the office at short notice due to the effects of medication.”

6. Keep communication ongoing

While internal procedures may provide short-term assistance, checking in on your employee’s progress when plans have been put in place will speak volumes in the long-term. “When an employee is signed off work for mental health issues, employers are often worried that if they make any contact with employees, they are making things worse and will end up in a tribunal,” says Sarah. “This is not the case, it is fine to make a call, or drop an absent employee an email to send your good wishes and to tell them that you are thinking about them. In fact, this show of support can really help an employee to feel valued and that they are still part of your team.”

“I usually become involved when relationships have deteriorated and employees are threatening legal action, or an employer is seeking to dismiss. As with all aspects of the employment relationship, I think the key is to ensure that there is ongoing communication, and that each party knows what is expected from them and complies with their obligations. I rarely see businesses that don’t care about their employees’ well-being. The problems I see are when a business has failed to get a proper evaluation of the employees’ illness which has resulted in a failure to respond to their needs, or when an employee has failed to co-operate in providing information to the business which would allow them to help.”

MORE GLOSS: Work-related stress? Here’s how to beat it

The final word

The increased prevalence, awareness and dialogue surrounding mental health illnesses are going a long way to making it no longer taboo to talk about. We spend so much time in the office that working towards make it a happier and healthier place is certain to benefit both employers and employees in the long-term. “Just as you would with any other physical illness, there are low level ups and downs in our mental health that don’t warrant running straight to the boss’s office. But when it really starts to affect your work, you need to take action,” says Phanella. Listen to that voice, and don’t worry about speaking up.

Find out more about mental health at work in the  Mental Health Foundation's free ebook.