How to approach mental health with your staff

Written by
Andrew Heath

28 Jan 2016

28 Jan 2016 • by Andrew Heath

Mental health is the main cause of sickness absence in the UK after coughs, colds and back trouble - and the problem is growing. The number of organisations reporting related problems over the last 12 months has increased by 41%, according to the CIPD UK Absence Management survey.

But mental health is rarely discussed in the workplace: line managers do not feel competent or willing to raise the issue, whilst staff members are often worried about the associated stigma and impact on their careers if they talk about any problems they have.

Clearly a new approach is required, because current strategies are not working.

Is work causing the stress?

It's important to examine the specific causes of anxiety and depression in the workplace, because these are the ones that HR professionals and line managers can do something about.

In fact some 40% of workplace mental health problems result from ‘factors intrinsic to the job’. These are principally workload pressures, including tight deadlines, excessive responsibility and a lack of managerial support. Next in the hierarchy are interpersonal relationships and changes at work, such as a new job role (Source: HSE: Work related Stress, Anxiety and Depression Statistics in Great Britain 2015). 

But how can busy line managers understand which of these issues if any are troubling their team members?

What questions to ask employees

It's important to have a methodology, across the organisation, to identify when these problems arise, quickly. The best way is to ask staff directly what is troubling them.

Developments in psychotherapy can provide guidance. Increasingly practitioners use questionnaires for personalised self-assessment by each client to identify specific symptoms and issues, such as the GAD-7 for anxiety and PHQ-9 for depression, or the CORE (Clinical Outcomes Routine Evaluation) system to get an overall picture of mental health.

Naming and measuring a problem empowers the person concerned, bringing a new focus and direction to the conversation. Also, repeated use will give an overall picture of subsequent progress.

So, consider the use of questionnaires for employee assessment. 

The principal concerns that might trouble staff - in any organisation - can be listed, which can then form the basis for one-to-one reviews and a new culture of coaching. Questions for staff members can cover such matters as:-

  • Clarity of understanding about the performance that is expected of them
  • Adequacy of resources, training and attention from supervisors
  • Levels of anxiety and feelings of achievement about control of their work

This strategy makes it easier to uncover the causes of workplace stress before it creates mental health issues for staff, turning an embarrassing and expensive problem into a practical working agenda for positive change.