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Managing mental health-related absences

Jan 03, 2017 Nicholas Stott

Like turkey and the Queen’s Speech, tradition and Christmas go hand in hand. Similarly, most employers will be aware of another seemingly unbreakable tradition – increased absence levels in the lead up to Christmas and the New Year.

During the month of December, UK businesses lost a total of approx. 23 million working days through absence due to seasonal illness such as colds and flu, as well as musculoskeletal injuries.

All of which of course has a huge effect on productivity.

However, recent evidence suggests it is not the traditional ailments that dominated absences this year. Instead, HR managers are dealing with an increased number of mental health-related absences.

Understanding the rise in work-related mental health issues

A recent report has suggested 4.6 million working days will have be lost this December because of mental health issues – 20% of the total, and an increase of 13% over the past 12 months alone.

And whilst incidents of coughs, colds, flu and injuries have remained steady over the past seven years, the trend for mental health issues is very much increasing.

In fact, since 2011, mental health issues in the workplace have increased by 71%. If this trend continues, 2017 will see the first year on record that mental health issues are the most common reason for workplace absences.

As an employer, dealing with mental health issues at work can be very difficult but understanding and knowing the right steps to take is vital to minimising the impact on overall productivity.

2017 could be the first year on record that mental health issues are the most common reason for workplace absences.

Identifying potential mental health-related issues

First and foremost, employers must accept work and mental health issues go hand in hand. A recent Danish study found that employees are far more likely to attribute depression to work related stress. However, mental health issues are often very difficult to identify and employers often struggle to correctly spot a member of staff dealing with mental health problems.

Symptoms can take the form of physical issues such as a change in weight or loss of appetite. However, more often than not, symptoms will be psychological and can include low mood, tearfulness, pessimism and poor attention/concentration.

Where employees are exhibiting signs of mental health issues, it is important you deal with this in the same way as an obvious physical ailment. You should speak to the employee in question and try to establish whether they are fit to continue working. You should also explore whether or not an employee’s illness is being caused by work-related issues. Where the answer to this is yes, you should seek to explore ways of alleviating or removing contributing factors.

When an employee takes time off work because of a mental health issue, careful consideration should also be given to their return. Whilst they may be able to provide a fit note from their GP, these are often unreliable.

GPs only know their patient’s perspective, and they seldom receive training in occupational medicine.

Furthermore, most psychiatrists behave as GPs do, so evidence from them should also be carefully considered.

If you are in any doubt, seek advice from an occupational health physician, who will be able to provide a far more helpful assessment of the employee’s ability to return to work and what adjustments, if any, you should consider making.

If you have any concerns regarding an employee’s mental health, you should contact Moorepay’s advice line on 0845 619 1743 to ensure the matter is dealt with appropriately.

Nicholas Stott

Nicholas Stott

Employment Law Consultant

Having initially studied International Development and Politics at Leeds University, Nick converted to Law, graduating from the College of Law London in 2008. Nick trained as a solicitor at a law firm based in London’s West End, before qualifying as an Employment Solicitor in 2010. Since then, Nick has advised businesses and individuals on all aspects of employment law and has particular experience advising businesses from the healthcare, IT and restaurant industries. Nick also has extensive experience undertaking Employment Tribunal litigation.