UK: Mental Health In The Workplace: Guidance For HR Departments

Last Updated: 12 May 2017
Article by Howard Hymanson and Charlie Thompson

Everyone experiences adverse life events which can affect the state of someone's mental health. Being subjected to work place bullying, excessive work demands or an unwarranted disciplinary process are familiar causes of work-related stress, a trigger for a mental illness.

We recently commented on the growing trend of employees seeking to hold their employers to account for breaching the duty of care when it comes to mental health in the workplace. All too often, the focus is on the effects of mental illness at work, rather than the root causes (read more).

Employers are being encouraged to become increasingly sophisticated in their approach to mental health. Following on from Theresa May's announcement in January to "transform the way we deal with mental illness" in the workplace, the Institute of Directors (IoD) has published a report, A Little More Conversation, which looks at mental health in the changing world of work.

The report shows that 54% of IoD members have been approached by their staff about mental health, including feelings of burnout or stress. While this figure might appear high to some, the report recognises there are untold numbers of people who suffer from mental illness at work and do not speak up about it. There is, the reports says, a "culture of silence that still persists around mental health."

The report recommends that "good employers of all sizes should... make clear that in their businesses, talking about mental health is as normal as talking about the accounts." This is achieved not just at a governmental level, but through businesses being more proactive, by, for example, introducing formal mental health and wellbeing policies, and appointing non-executive directors who are responsible for mental health to their boards.

While the impact of the report remains to be seen, it appears to be another event in a growing trend of mental health losing its stigma. However, workplace cultures do not change overnight. In such a climate, we anticipate that more and more employees who suffer from mental health in the workplace will seek to hold their employers accountable, and that judges will be increasingly willing to find the employers liable.

We have compiled a list of tips to assist HR departments in creating an effective mental health strategy. We recommend a three-pronged approach of Prevention, Detection and Mitigation.


  • Ensure that you have comprehensive equality, anti-bullying and harassment policies, backed up with regular training sessions, to both raise awareness and address the stigma which may surround mental health.
  • Promote a healthy work-life balance through initiatives such as flexible working and "tech-free time."
  • Work with managers to ensure that projects are sufficiently staffed and managed, in order to avoid individuals working round the clock.
  • Offer support through a confidential employee helpline or provide details of an external provider which can offer this service.


  • Train managers in recognising early symptoms of mental health problems, such as decreased productivity or communication, increased sickness absence, changes in emotional moods and attitudes to colleagues.
  • Raise awareness of factors which might affect an employee's ability to manage mental health conditions, such as heavy workloads or increases in responsibility. Ensure that these are kept under review to spot any warning signs.
  • Join up the dots when monitoring sickness absence to look out for trends (in terms of illness and sickness absence) within your workforce which may identify high risk managers and departments, and take appropriate measures to address the problems which they pose.
  • Ensure that performance reviews or appraisals include an opportunity for employees to raise any factors including physical health, stress, anxiety or depression, which may be affecting performance. Managers should discuss any disclosures about mental health with HR before formalising support plans or taking further steps in order to help promote consistency of treatment.


  • Arrange meetings with any employee who might be at risk of a decline in mental health at the earliest opportunity to discuss concerns and any support measures available.
  • Consider whether any "reasonable adjustments" will assist employees in managing mental health conditions, such as flexible working arrangements, phased return to work, reducing workload or extending deadlines.
  • Seek advice from occupational health professionals and in doing so seek specific, practical recommendations which can be adopted and put into practice.
  • Do not forget to support other employees who may be asked to take on additional duties.
  • Obtain medical advice to allow you to determine the likelihood of future absences.
  • Do not, however, rely solely on medical advice. Employers should also make their own assessments and liaise with the employee about their view on current and expected future capabilities including their attendance at work.
  • Maintain clear records of all discussions and processes. Information relating to an employee's health constitutes sensitive personal data and therefore it is imperative to treat such matters with strict confidentiality.
  • Ensure that a member of HR is accountable for being in contact with an employee who is developing a mental health issue at work. Regularly touching base, can have a positive impact and reduce the scope for an individual to become embittered and more likely to bring a claim.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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