Leadership

Promoting Positive Mental Health in the Workplace

Education settings can be high pressure environments for staff, particularly at certain points in the academic year. Whilst it is not always possible to prevent staff experiencing stress at work, a good manager will know and be able to implement strategies for effectively managing stress and be able to support an employee experiencing other mental health difficulties. This guidance looks at some of these strategies as well as the legal risks associated with ignoring workplace stress and the need to promote positive mental health in general.

What do we mean by ‘mental health’? 

When our mental health is good we feel able to cope with the day-to-day stresses of normal life. We are productive at work and enjoy good social networks.

Even those with generally good mental health may, however, suffer periods of mental ill health on occasion, whether through simply feeling a bit down or anxious, or under stress. Mental health is best considered as a continuum along which individuals move up and down during their lives, sometimes experiencing more positive periods of mental health, other periods less so. Even those with recognised mental illnesses will usually experience periods of positive mental health.

The consequence  of ignoring work-related stress

The likely consequences of ignoring workplace stress include:

  • Higher costs in sickness payments and in covering absent staff;
  • Increased accident rates;
  • More employee grievances and disputes;
  • A direct negative impact on the learning environment of pupils and students;
  • Poor motivation, resulting in lower performance
  • and quality of teaching;
  • Deterioration in professional relationships between staff and other stakeholders, such as parents;
  • Potentially costly legal claims from employees, with associated reputational risk.

Day-to-day actions managers can take

Managers need to be alert to potentially stressful situations, such as difficult phases of change, particularly busy periods or environmental factors (like cramped and noisy working conditions) and be aware of any unexpected changes to the behaviour of those they manage.

Managers should particularly be mindful that employees may see admitting to feeling stressed as a sign of weakness or failure and be reluctant to come forward voluntarily. An alert manager who recognises signs that an employee is struggling to cope may be able to initiate an exploratory conversation, encouraging the employee to be honest about how they are feeling and jointly considering ways to address the causes.

If indicative signs of stress are present and the manager has simply ignored the matter and not attempted to talk to the employee not only is the situation likely to deteriorate but the employer may

well be in breach of its duty of care, potentially leading to legal claims.

Here are some particular areas where managers can take action to reduce the prevalence of stress and promote positive mental health:

Job design

  • Job descriptions: whenever a vacancy is to be filled (and periodically for existing staff) line managers should ensure there is an up-to-date job description or role profile for the job which is clear about the purpose of the role, the core objectives and how the role fits into the staffing structure.
  • Ways of working: line managers should use opportunities (such as performance appraisals) to talk to their staff about the ways tasks are undertaken to identify any problems and any efficiencies that could be achieved. Those actually performing the tasks are usually best placed to identify improvements.
  • Delegation and control: lack of control is a recognised source of stress. Wherever possible individuals should be given more control over their work and how they organise it on a day-to-day basis.

Support

  • Induction: every employee needs training and support to take on a new role, whether they are new to the school/college or are being promoted or moved to a different area of work. Line managers should diarise time during the first three months to regularly catch-up with the employee to see how they are managing and to provide informal support.
  • Training: lack of proper training causes loss of confidence which can contribute to stress levels. Training needs do not end after induction and these should be reviewed at least once a year as part of performance reviews and also as part of identified cross-organisation needs. Training in managing stress and building resilience can be particularly valuable in high-pressure environments.
  • Ongoing support: good managers should always be visible and approachable by those they manage. It should be encouraged as part of the school/college culture that employees can approach their manager for support and advice at any time.

Communication

  • Take responsibility: managers should take personal responsibility for keeping employees fully up-to-date with any matters that potentially affect them and to invite feedback as appropriate.
  • Give feedback: there should be regular opportunities provided for individual members of staff to receive feedback on their performance, particularly by passing on any positive thoughts and comments.
  • Ask employees to contribute: facilitate opportunities for employees to come forward with ideas for improvement or solutions to current problems and ensure these are recognised and responded to.
  • Avoid emails where possible: email overload can be a big contributor to stress levels. Try to use, and encourage the use of, face-to-face communication where possible and discourage a culture of relentless emails.

Workload reviews

  • Consult staff about workload: managers should take regular opportunities – at annual appraisal and at more informal reviews – to talk to their staff about their level of workload and how they are coping.
  • Take action as necessary: managers should be prepared to take decisive action if workloads are becoming unreasonable or if individuals are struggling to cope. It is important to recognise that it is normal for the ability of individuals to cope with a heavy workload to vary from person
  • to person and action should be taken based on how that person is coping.
  • Encourage breaks: encourage a culture where it is expected that staff take regular breaks from work, both during the day and holidays during school/college closure periods.
  • Take active measures to reduce workload: as appropriate and reasonable, look to recruit additional staff, reallocate work amongst individuals to share the load more evenly, adjust roles and impose rules about working time, such as not working beyond a certain time or picking up emails in the evening.

Flexibility

It is not always easy for employers in the education sector to be as flexible as some other employers when it comes to working arrangements because of the pressures during term time and the need for certain staffing levels to be maintained. However, where possible – and taking into account genuine operational need – managers should consider the following:

  • Working hours: be open to requests to adjust working patterns and working hours.
  • Flexible working: give proper consideration to job-share or other flexible working requests and give adequate explanation where requests cannot be accommodated.
  • Work-life balance: be conscious of the competing pressures of work and home life that affect all employees from time to time and seek to be tolerant and accommodating when these pressures occasionally conflict.

Anti-bullying measures

  • Not just for pupils: harassment and/or bullying behaviour is unsurprisingly a major cause of stress at work and sometimes it is perpetrated covertly, in ways which can be easily overlooked by managers. Employers should use available mechanisms such as induction materials, codes of conduct and relevant policies to reinforce the message that such behaviours will not be condoned and will result in disciplinary action being taken.
  • Act on suspicions: whether as the result of a specific complaint or just a feeling that a particular work relationship is not quite right, always take swift action if you have reason to believe that an employee may be the victim of bullying behaviours. This will usually involve instigating an investigation and could result in disciplinary action or some alternative form of dispute resolution where appropriate, such as mediation or restorative justice approaches. Senior managers should also watch for managers who have a bullying management style. This is just as damaging as co-worker bullying and some managers are unaware how their behaviour is perceived, believing it to be assertive or authoritative rather than intimidating.

Managing change

When faced with instigating or managing the aftermath of a period of change, it is important that managers openly acknowledge that change brings uncertainty and it is normal to feel anxious about that and to take time to adjust afterwards. It is also normal for employees to feel and react differently. To mitigate as far as possible the negative impact of going through a period of change, managers should:

  • Start talking to employees at an early stage about plans for change and ensure they are regularly involved and consulted with thereafter.
  • Give updates as and when it is possible to do so (even where there is nothing new to say), providing answers to questions and as much reassurances it is realistic to offer in the circumstances.
  • Take time to talk to employees individually about how the change will impact on them specifically and how they are feeling.

Staff benefits

  • EAPs: employee assistance programmes are a valuable mechanism for ensuring that members of staff have access to specialist, independent advice on a range of wellbeing issues. Increasingly they also provide access to counselling sessions.
  • Low-cost health initiatives: managing stress is all part of living a healthy lifestyle. Encouraging staff to eat well and exercise are practical ways that managers can help staff to manage stress better. Schools and colleges are often well placed to facilitate fitness or relaxation classes, for example.
  • Improve the physical environment: it is easy to overlook the impact our working environment has on our mental health. Whilst larger-scale building improvements often have to take a back-seat for budget reasons, small changes to the décor, layout or quality of furniture and fittings can have a demonstrable impact on how people feel when they are at work.

Conducting a stress audit

Under the Management of Health and Safety and Work Regulations 1992, employers have a statutory duty to conduct risk assessments in order to identify and assess any risks to the health and safety of its employees and to put in place preventative measures where risks are identified. For these purposes, risks include risks to mental health. 

Team and individual stress or wellbeing assessments are a recognised way of proactively identifying and addressing the causes of stress at work. To inform such assessments and monitor how well the school or college is doing, various forms of data can be gathered, for example from:

  • Staff questionnaires (the HSE Indicator Tool can be used for this purpose, either on its own or in conjunction with other surveys or tools);
  • Data on sickness absence rates and reasons for absence;
  • Staff turnover rates;
  • Accident statistics;
  • Number of referrals to occupational health;
  • Information from exit interviews;
  • Discussion with staff representative groups or forums;
  • Reviews of the working environment (e.g. looking at potential stressors like cramped space, excessive noise, temperature extremes as well as the provision of facilities for staff);
  • Information from any staff grievances.

Such data sources can be used to inform a solution-focussed approach to the risks identified. Employee representatives can be utilised to help come up with solutions they believe will positively impact on staff. 

What to do when an employee is suffering from stress

If you would like assistance with conducting a stress audit you may wish to contact us for advice and help with resources.

If an employee has admitted that he/she is suffering from stress, or is exhibiting signs of stress, the manager should arrange to talk with the employee privately on an informal basis as soon as possible.

Conducting the meeting

  • Prepare in advance by gathering any relevant information together, e.g. records of any sickness absence or work performance as well as records of meetings at which these have been discussed.
  • At the meeting, explain that the purpose of the discussion is to talk through any difficulties the employee is experiencing and whether there is anything the school/college can do to improve the situation.
  • Adopt a supportive attitude and use open questioning to try to identify what is causing the stress and particularly whether it relates to work or home life, or both.
  • Consider jointly what steps could be taken at work to either reduce or remove the identified causes of stress or to help the employee to cope better.
  • Consider and discuss with the employee whether it would be appropriate to refer him/her to occupational health (this will usually be appropriate in cases of work-related stress).
  • Try to agree a way forward, commit action points to paper and follow up with the employee at regular intervals to review progress.
  • Keep a file note of the discussion for your future reference but ensure that information remains confidential.

Possible actions

Actions that could reasonably be taken will of course depend on the root causes of the stress. 

If the stress is work related, possible actions which could be agreed with the employee might include:

  • Redistributing part of the employee’s workload to others, either temporarily or permanently, either to reduce overall workload or to remove particularly stressful aspects of the role;
  • Consideration of alternative roles on a temporary or permanent basis;
  • Changes to work pattern, location of work or reduced hours (again, on a temporary or permanent basis);
  • Organising some additional training to give the employee more confidence and/or proficiency at particular tasks;
  • Appointing a mentor or coach;
  • Provision of counselling services (these are often available through an EAP);
  • Putting in place some agreed rules around working hours and behaviours or strategies to avoid taking on excessive work.

If the stress relates to the employee’s personal life, the range of actions that the employer can realistically take to improve the situation are clearly much more limited. It is likely, however, that personal stress will impact on the employee’s work to at least some extent, making him or her less able to cope at work as well as at home. 

This does not mean to say that the employer has no role to play and managers cannot entirely negate possible liability where work issues may impinge on existing personal stress. Managers should therefore adopt a similar sympathetic approach as for work-related stress, trying to identify any work factors that are contributing to, or being affected by, the employee’s personal difficulties. Where possible, similar measures as outlined above for work-related stress – particularly around flexible working arrangements – may need to be considered to ensure that the employee is supported to remain in work as far as reasonably possible. This may mean being more tolerant of a drop in performance levels than would usually be the case, although this does not of course mean that unsatisfactory performance can or should be tolerated indefinitely.

What happens if the employee still cannot cope despite measures put into place? 

If the employer has given due consideration to the causes of stress identified and has put in place reasonably practicable measures to reduce or eliminate these it should normally be expected that the situation will improve given adequate time, as identified through appropriate discussion and review with the individual. 

If the employee is still failing to cope with the demands of the job despite support, it may become necessary to consider using formal capability procedures to monitor and manage the employee’s performance. If an acceptable standard of performance is still not reached, this could ultimately result in termination of employment on the grounds of capability. An occupational health report should be sought in such circumstances to ensure that all appropriate support has been offered and there is no reasonable prospect of a full recovery in the foreseeable future. 

Equally, long-term sickness absence for stress-related reasons could result in a fair dismissal on capability grounds provided a fair process has been undertaken and medical evidence has been sought. 

It would always be advisable to take HR advice if you are contemplating the use of formal procedures in such circumstances. 

What to do if an employee is experiencing other mental health difficulties 

Managers can help to maintain the positive mental health of employees and assist those who may be experiencing difficulties by:

  1. Being alert to the symptoms of emotional distress
  2. Being proactive when employees are experiencing difficulties
  3. Undertaking ongoing monitoring

1) Be alert

The typical symptoms of someone who may be experiencing mental ill health are similar to stress. The person may exhibit changes in behaviour, they may be agitated or experience mood swings, they may be tired through poor sleep quality, take unexplained absence, be performing poorly or unable to concentrate properly.

It is important to act promptly but sensitively on such warning signs, seeking a private, informal word with the individual:

  • Ask if he/she is okay and whether you can help in any way.
  • Don’t seek to ‘diagnose’ what’s wrong with them or seek to give advice on mental health conditions – leave this to the professionals.
  • Encourage the individual to seek professional help where appropriate.
  • If the employee indicates there is a short-term problem unrelated to work, it may be that nothing further is required at this stage, although you should keep an eye on the situation and seek to be understanding of the circumstances.

2)Be proactive

If the issue is more than just a short-term personal problem you will need to engage with the employee more thoroughly.

Arrange a meeting with prior notice in a private location.

Think about what you already know about the situation and/or how the employee’s behaviour has changed and alerted you to a problem.

In the meeting

  • Ask open questions – ask them how they are feeling, whether they are having any difficulties at work.
  • If necessary, point to some examples of out-of-character behaviour which has led you to be concerned about them.
  • Be non-judgemental: listen to their responses and ask any further questions for clarification.
  • Ask if there are ways in which you can help them to manage the concerns.
  • Point them towards sources of support as appropriate and consider referral to occupational health.
  • Seek to agree between you a way forward and a review date to meet again.

3)Ongoing meeting

Try to encourage a culture of openness where employees can come to you (or their own line manager) if they have concerns.

Where you know an individual is experiencing, or has experienced, mental health problems make sure you are alert to any changes that may impact on how you manage the situation, such as an escalation of symptoms or a new diagnosis or treatment plan. Pay attention to any particularly stressful situations they may find themselves in, for example because of a particularly busy period or a change management programme.

You may have to put additional efforts into ensuring such individuals remain engaged and motivated and ensure that review meetings are scheduled during the year.

Summary of the legal issues: work-related stress and psychiatric injury 

There is no standalone legal claim relating specifically to work-related stress but employees may nevertheless be able to bring a claim on various grounds in circumstances where it was reasonable for an employer to have taken action and the employer failed to do so, or failed to do what was reasonable. Possible claims might include:

  • A personal injury claim on the basis of the employer’s negligence where this has resulted in the employee developing a recognised mental illness.
  • Constructive dismissal and/or breach of the contract of employment, usually on the basis of an implied duty to ensure the safety of the employee or the implied duty of mutual trust and confidence).
  • A discrimination claim, for example resulting from unlawful harassment or disability discrimination: this may include an element of damages for psychiatric injury caused by the harassment or discrimination.

These three potential claims all involve complex areas of law, relying heavily on case precedents. There are, however, common themes. In terms of duty of care, the key issues will tend to be around whether the employee’s psychiatric injury was reasonably foreseeable and whether the employer had taken reasonable steps to prevent the harm. It must also be demonstrated that it was work-related factors that caused, or materially contributed to, the employee’s illness. Employers are, however, entitled to assume that any individual employee can cope with normal work pressures unless they know, or ought to have known, that there were problems or signs of work-related stress, such as stress-related absences.

In cases involving harassment and discrimination, the foreseeability of the injury is less relevant as it is generally assumed that such treatment is likely to result in psychiatric injury. It is particularly important, therefore, to ensure that any suggestion that the employee may have suffered discriminatory treatment is robustly and promptly addressed.

Note also that the provisions of the Equality Act 2010 allow for various mental illnesses to qualify as disabilities provided there is a substantial and long-term effect on the employee’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. In such cases, the usual requirement to make reasonable adjustments will apply.

Talking about mental health 

It is understandable that managers can feel uncomfortable discussing mental health with those they manage. Whilst attitudes towards mental health have changed in the last 20 years there is still sometimes a stigma attached to it. Physical illnesses are generally easier to talk about: they manifest in more obvious ways and treatment and recovery can often be more clear-cut. Mental illnesses can sometimes still be viewed, by employees or managers, as a sign of weakness or lack of self-discipline, or even as something disturbing.

For managers it is usually helpful to think of physical and mental illnesses in the same way by:

  • Focussing on the work impact, whether any action can be taken to make staying in work easier; 
  • Involving the person in discussing and coming up with solutions; 
  • Keeping communication lines open: encouraging a culture of openness and regularly asking staff how they are; 
  • Conducting regular reviews; 
  • Making use of occupational health services; 
  • Seeking further advice and support both internally and externally as necessary, particularly if you feel out of your depth managing the situation. 

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