The annual Time to Talk Day takes place on Thursday February 6th this year. Its aim is to raise awareness of mental health issues and encourage open conversations about such issues. In late 2018, the Irish Times reported that Ireland had “one of the highest rates of mental health illness in Europe”. Joint third, in fact. Mentalhealthireland.ie states that one in four of us will experience a mental health problem at some point in our lives – a figure which somehow seems at once both incredible yet conservative, considering how many reports of mental health issues we are seeing, especially from within the workplace. What are some of the causes of these problems?

High-risk factors

Certain types of jobs have a much higher rate of mental health issues than others. Within the legal profession, a massive 57% of solicitors have reported “very high or extreme levels of stress” (Legal-island.ie, 2020). Factors cited include high client expectations, tight deadlines and large workloads – all issues which are not exclusive to the legal profession. However, when combined with the fact that most solicitors face distressing situations daily (especially those working in family law and criminal law), the likelihood of these pressures creating a toxic work environment increases. Role hierarchy can also affect a person’s wellbeing. A survey conducted by Ipsos Mori recently found that 27% of managers had had a mental health diagnosis.

Part of the reason for this mental health crisis could be due to our seeming inability to talk about some of the pressures we experience in the workplace. Of the 27% of managers with diagnosed mental health issues, only 18% had told their employer about it. Considering that managers are looked to as leaders and are encouraged to set an example for their direct reports, this statistic is scary in more ways than one. We all know that talking things through can sometimes help to alleviate symptoms of stress and anxiety. An inability to do this, for whatever reason, can mean that these symptoms can become compounded and lead to an eventual breakdown, a physical manifestation of the stress experienced.

Are you putting too much pressure on your employees?

Given that the average adult will spend approximately one third of their life at work, emphasis needs to be put on identifying potential stressors which can have an impact on employee wellbeing. Section 8 (1) of The Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 states that “every employer must protect, so far as is reasonably practicable, the safety, health and welfare at work of its employees”. This begs the question, how is an employer supposed to help employees if they are never told there is a problem? The answer to that lies with another question – why are those employees not comfortable disclosing such details? If your organisation promotes a culture of stigma around these issues, no matter how noble your intentions may be, employees will be discouraged from confiding in those within your organisation that could potentially offer help and support.

So, what are some steps that you can take to proactively tackle this area?

Providing a safe place of work

As our latest blog highlighted, employee wellbeing is important to the running of a successful organisation. However, paying attention to this area also means that you are less likely to be brought to court for failure to provide duty of care! Some organisations have the tendency to focus solely on employee wellbeing from a physical point of view, incorporating exercise classes and healthy eating initiatives. Of course, while research has proven that a good diet and exercise can also contribute to mental wellbeing, these steps should not be taken in isolation.

Here are some areas which you as an employer may want to consider.

Ensuring that ways of working do not place undue stress on the employee

When it comes to workplace stress, a lot of the issues stem with pressure to meet either internal or external deadlines. In a lot of organisations, this can lead to employees needing to work more hours than is in their contract of employment, very often without any extra pay or benefits. Employers should really scrutinise what their culture here is. In some cases, such circumstances are unavoidable, especially in reactionary situations (for instance a care worker needing to stay after a shift has ended in order to deal with a matter adequately). However, adjustments may need to be made regarding that employees’ other duties in order to avoid undue stress and anxiety.

Today’s working environment is aided by technological innovations which can make employees more efficient and able to complete working tasks in less time than ever before. Such innovations can contribute to a more flexible style of working which can also have positive results for both employers and staff. However, where lines are blurred between work and home life, it can be hard to escape the stressors that work can bring.

Office workers with 9-5 jobs may also experience a certain pressure to be ‘always-on’. In 2018, the Labour Court awarded €7,500 to an employee who was found to have been working more than the maximum allowed number of hours per week, due to the number of work-related emails she was required to review and send as part of her role. By failing to put a stop to this, the employer was found to be in breach of the law and was therefore liable. If your place of work has an unspoken expectation that employees be contactable at all times, you may find yourself in a similar situation. Rather, every employee should have the right to delineate between working hours and personal hours and you as an employer should be supportive of this.

Prevention of bullying and harassment

Employers can never, with 100% certainty, fully prevent employees from treating other employees in a way that could give rise to complaints of bullying or harassment. There is however an expectation that an employer can identify potentially volatile working relationships and act before it becomes an issue. In the recent case of McCarthy vs ISS Ireland, the plaintiff alleged that she had reported several incidents of bullying to ISS Ireland who had failed to take action. The Court of Appeal found that ISS Ireland was liable in neglecting to take precautionary steps to prevent the recurrence of a situation which resulted in significant stress for the plaintiff. As an employer, you must ensure that reports of bullying and harassment are dealt with according to procedure – and that such procedures exist.

Open lines of communication

Organisations should operate a transparent and open working environment so that employees feel able to talk about their experiences with mental health. If an employee reports that they are feeling overworked or under pressure, their complaint needs to be dealt with confidentially and satisfactorily, without any fear of repercussions. The HR function within your organisation should be a beacon of light for employees who feel that they are all at sea. However, HR professionals are human too! Just as solicitors often have to deal with distressing situations which can cause stress, so too do HR professionals. When taking a flight, the air stewards always advise during the safety instructions that, were the plane to get into difficulty, parents travelling with children should put on their own oxygen masks first before attempting to sort out their child’s. In the same vein, HR professionals should ensure that they are prioritising their own health in order to be best equipped to perform their role adequately.

However, HR professionals must also recognise areas where they are not equipped with the necessary skills to help an employee. In some cases, an employee may benefit from speaking to a professional counsellor or therapist that can help them find the light at the end of the tunnel. Incorporating access to counselling into an Employee Assistance Programme may be advisable, especially in high-risk sectors.

open doorway

Does your business have an open-door policy?

No matter how transparent and open you aim to make these lines of communication, sometimes an employee may just not feel able to come forward and speak to management about the issues they are having. If you suspect that an employee may be experiencing some problems in this area, then as a manager you should proactively approach the situation. It may be adequate to have an informal chat with the employee and try to find out whether there has been anything that has happened in their personal life recently which could be affecting them at work, or whether their tasks are placing an inordinate amount of stress of them. In such situations, it is also your responsibility to provide them with any information which you feel may be relevant to them, such as where they can go to for advice on their specific situation, contact details for counsellors and online resources.

The right to privacy

In a lot of cases, matters can and should be dealt with in confidentiality. Any manager found to be in breach of confidentiality should face serious consequences, as such a breach can dissuade employees coming forward in the future.

It is worth noting though that this agreement to keep things confidential should never cloud your better judgement. As an employer with a duty of care, it is always your utmost priority to ensure the heath and safety of all employees. That means that if an employee is deemed to be a risk either to themselves or to others, it may be necessary for you enlist an external party to help deal with the situation and prevent any harm coming to those involved.

What happens if the employee is no longer well enough to do their job?

Most employers are aware that they must tread carefully when it comes to sensitive issues, such as an employee’s health determining how able they are to fulfil their role. As the Employment Equality Acts 1998-2015 state, an employer cannot simply dismiss an employee who is deemed no longer capable without first properly assessing the situation and taking any reasonable steps possible to accommodate their needs and enable them to fulfil that role. A mere feeling that a recent illness or accident will be an impediment to their ability to fulfil the required duties is not valid enough reason. Instead, there is a set process that employers must follow in order to prove that they have complied with the law, otherwise they could be at risk of legal action.

Where can I find further advice?

When it comes to developing policies which will help you to deal with mental health issues in the workplace, organisation such as Pieta House, Aware and Mental Health Ireland offer a wealth of online resources and supports. You can also access training programmes which are geared towards helping both employees and managers recognise the symptoms of mental health issues, as well as offer guidance in how to address matters appropriately and effectively.

In the meantime, should you need any help in the area of developing policies, procedures or indeed any HR related issue, please do give us a call on 056-770100