Mapping out your route for a long car journey can be an onerous task.  The most direct route might take you along traffic-logged roads, while the more pleasant route might not go near a petrol station!  Deciding on the most effective route to take is something that affects most businesses too. In the end, it all comes down to priorities, and while many employers want to support their staff, often other business objectives take over. This is particularly the case when managing staff with mental health conditions.

Prioritising the health, well-being and development of your employees, over profits or developing new products and services may seem counter-intuitive.  However, your staff can turn your business objectives into a reality and bring new ideas to the table based on their skills and experiences.  There is also much evidence including from the IPA, to show that employees are most productive when they are engaged, motivated and supported. 

Of course, we all know that it is not always possible for employees to be at their best.  Pressures in and out of work can take its toll, and when mental health issues arise, it can be difficult for managers to know what to do.

New research from Acas and Essex Business School looks at the experiences of employers in managing staff with mental health issues, and aims to share some good practice for other employers encountering similar situations.  While the research showed that there is no set response or one size fits all approach in terms of dealing with mental health issues, here are some key areas for employers to consider and act on:

  1. Assessing the true impact of downsizing and work intensification

Often when changes are made in organisations, it’s for improved efficiency or financial gain.  While it’s important to make business improvements, it’s equally important to consider the human costs.  New ways of working, restructuring programmes and cost efficiency drives can all breed uncertainty and anxiety for staff, so it’s important to hear and respond to concerns before it escalates into something more serious.  It’s also important to bear in mind that stresses at work are likely to affect staff in different ways, especially depending on their personal situations, as explained by one of the participants from the research:

“…The waves of losing your job and having job insecurity does bring interpersonal problems and difficulties in families. It can’t not interfere across the board. From my own experience when my family support wobbled then I wobbled twice as much at work because of the ongoing stress at work that was affecting family life.”  (Employee)

  1. The importance of approachable line managers

Employees interviewed as part of the research repeatedly referred to the importance of being able to communicate with line managers about their situations.   This is significant, as individuals are more likely to disclose mental health conditions and seek extra support if they have a strong relationship with their manager in the first place.  From the manager’s perspective too, a good working relationship can help in spotting the signs when something is wrong, enabling a suitable return to work plan and making reasonable adjustments.  This can all aid disruption to work plans and enable staff to work at the best of their ability.  The importance of approachable managers was described a participant from the research:

‘I think it's fair to say, from my own experience as an advisor as well, I've been poorly managed in the past, and that's drastically affected my mental health, especially with my anxiety’. (Line manager)

  1. Seeking advice and support where necessary

There is a wealth of support and information for all managers, regardless of your level of experience. The organisations used as part of the study had often drawn on multiple sources of guidance to help manage staff undergoing mental health difficulties.  Using employer outreach activity was another useful way of developing skills and enabled trainers with lived experience of mental health conditions to share their insights on how managers can support their staff.

We've had a few members of staff at various organisations who have actually

stayed behind to talk to us and say, you know what, I think I'm struggling with this, or, I'm going through this problem, how do I address it? So it's obviously touching a nerve and there's a need for it’ (Employer outreach provider)

Navigating mental health issues at work doesn’t have to be difficult. Acas has produced guidance, research and case studies on this area to raise awareness on the importance of managing mental health at work, but also to share the learning and help employers take the right route in supporting their staff when they need it most.


Rachel Pinto, Senior Research Officer