Seeking mental health support at work
As many as one in five women develop a mental health challenge during pregnancy or in the first year after the birth of their baby. And one in four people in the UK will have a mental health problem at some point.
In the professional world, mental health has an extra layer of bias and stigma.
Mental health is about how we think, feel and behave and so (unless severe) it is a subjective experience. When we face a challenge, we often wonder whether we should try to handle things on our own. The rule of thumb is to seek help if how you feel or think has an impact on your day-to-day life.
Help comes in many shapes - family, friends, mentors, colleagues, HR or medical help. Not many people know that coaching offers effective support for people who struggle with mental health issues. Through behavioural and mindset change, coaching helps people who struggle with work and life pressures to achieve sustainable high performance and balance – responsible employers hire coaches to support their key / talented employees achieve such sustainable growth and wellbeing. There are also specialist coaches who support people through the health recovery/treatment journey, because most recovery happens outside the medical treatment room through lifestyle and behavioural change. I offer both of those coaching supports – reach out to me if you would like to learn more.
One thing in particular worries me as a coach and as a former lawyer and working mum. I see professionals who struggle and still do not seek help for fear of the employer finding out and that seeking help might affect their career.
I have asked Charlotte Batcup, HR & Corporate Services Manager with a London financial services organisation where stresses are high and mental health is taken seriously, to share her professional experience on seeking mental health support at work.
Here is Charlotte:
Seeking mental health support at work
Returning to work after a long time off can be daunting, even more so when you are returning to work after maternity leave and when you combine that with a mental health issue such as postnatal depression, PTSD or anxiety, then it can make the prospect of returning to work even more overwhelming. However, there are things you and your employer can do to support you during your transition from Full Time Mum to Working Mum.
Keeping your employer informed
Employees are not legally obligated to inform their employer about any mental health concerns they are having, however, letting your employer know means they are in a better position to understand and support you.
When you are feeling anxious, whether that is before you return to work or once you have returned to work, speak to someone you feel comfortable talking to, such as HR or your line manager. Both HR and your line manager should keep your conversation confidential unless you have agreed that you are happy for them to speak to someone else about it.
Once you have informed your line manager or HR, they will be able to point you in the right direction for support such as counselling, or to make reasonable adjustments which could include flexible working or a phased return to work.
If you do not feel comfortable speaking to your manager or HR, then speak to someone else in your team or outside of work who you feel comfortable confiding in, they may be able to point you in the right direction for support and be a listening ear.
Fear of judgement
We are not blind to the fact that some employers are still quite old school and have not changed their mindset around mental health, and therefore you may feel nervous about being judged or treated in the wrong way/less favourably because of your mental health concerns. However, your employer has a duty to support you and they cannot discriminate against you as the Equality Act 2010 protects characteristics such as mental health problems.
So, if your line manager has treated you badly because of the challenges you are facing, then raise it up to the next level such as HR, and then from there to a superior, if things don’t change then ultimately you can complain by raising a grievance.
If an employee has been off sick for a period of time, an employer may contact Occupational Health (OH). Occupational health is a type of medical service which employers can use to conduct a medical assessment of an employee’s mental or physical health. In some cases, an OH advisor may need more information from an employee’s doctor; however, the advisor will ask for the employees written consent before doing so. The main aim of a medical assessment is to understand how the employer can best support the employees return to work. Once the assessment has taken place the OH advisor will ask the employee if they can share the report with their employer, if the employee agrees the employer and employee can work together to make reasonable adjustments for their return to work.
It is important to note that an employee does not have to agree to an occupational health assessment, however, it is a good idea to as OH is there to get you back to work quicker, can help your employer to understand your situation better and give them the ability to support you in the right way.
What can your employer do to support you?
Keep in touch
When an employee goes on maternity leave, it is common for employers to leave the employee to it and to not contact them. It suits some employees, while for others this can feel isolating and make them feel even more anxious about returning to work. Therefore, line managers, peers and HR should give the absent employee opportunities to be involved. Ways to do this include:
Before the employee goes on parental leave, asking the employee about the ways and how often she wants to keep in touch, if at all. The employee might change how she feels about keeping in touch before going on leave and after the baby actually arrives
Inviting them to social events
Inviting them to team/company meetings
Emailing them updates
Calling where possible for a chat, whether about work or for a general catch up (actually speaking can reduce misinterpretations)
Employees can also come into work and be paid for up to 10 Keeping in Touch (KIT) days without maternity leave or pay ending.
A great way for HR to support parents returning to work post maternity leave and to reduce the anxiety around it is to create a structured refresher induction plan; basically, a mini version of what a new starter might experience when they first come to work for the Company. This can help the employee to get up to speed quickly with any changes that have taken place in the time they have been away and will enable the employee to ease into their role more quickly.
Although all employees have a legal right to request flexible working after they have worked with the same employer for 26 weeks, employees are often apprehensive about sending a request for the fear of rejection. This fear may come from their colleagues being told no in the past, or from a company culture that encourages employees to work long hours. Interestingly though most studies indicate that the vast majority of employees requests are accepted, and many businesses are now working more flexibly, particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic hit the UK and employers were forced to switch the majority of their workforce to homeworking.
In order to reduce the fear that employees have employers should share openly their policies on flexible working and create a culture that welcomes requests, even if they can’t always be entirely accommodated for business reasons. Flexible working requests can take various forms such as job sharing, home working, part-time, flexitime and so on. Mothers can also request flexible hours for breastfeeding and for the ability to express milk at work.
The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) has developed a Code of Practice that helps guide employers on how to handle flexible working requests in a reasonable manner.
In recent months Liz Truss, The Minister for Women and Equalities, called for flexible working to become a standard option for employees as this will open up opportunities for all people regardless of their sex or location and in turn help boost the economy. The Minister’s viewpoint has been supported by various studies including a recent survey conducted on the UK Government and jobs website Indeed, which found that roles offering flexible working increased job applications by 30% (Gov.uk, 2021).
A supportive culture
In recent years many employers have changed their perception of mental health and instead of telling an employee to just get on with it, or in some situations ‘man up’, employers are now supporting their employees by providing mental health support, private medical benefits, an open and supportive culture, flexible working, mental health champions and so on.
Having a supportive culture benefits both the employer and the employee, it increases retention, boosts morale, reduces stress, increases performance and improves mental health. If these aren’t good enough reasons for employers to change their mindset and support employees with their physical and mental health, I don’t know what is!
Do not suffer in silence
I can understand the concerns that some employees have about speaking up with they need help, however, it is very often the case that when we do pluck up the courage to seek help, we get much better support than we ever thought we would and ultimately suffering in silence will have a much bigger impact on you mentally than if you seek support when you need it.
Anya Smirnova works with professionals who struggle with mental health issues in two ways. Firstly, behavioural and mindset coaching for sustainable high performance and balance – responsible employers hire coaches to support their key / talented employees achieve such sustainable growth and wellbeing. Secondly, Anya is a specialist executive & health coach and supports professionals through their health recovery/treatment journey because most recovery happens outside the medical treatment room through lifestyle and behavioural change. Reach out to Anya if you would like to learn more.