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New ACAS support for employers regarding mental health

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A new report published has highlighted the impact of mental ill health in the workplace.  The Thriving at Work report, commissioned by Prime Minister Theresa May, has found that up to 300,000 people with long-term mental health problems have to leave their jobs each year, with poor mental health costing the UK economy up to £99billion each year.   Howard Robson, Employment Partner, reviews new guidance from ACAS aimed at supporting employers.

Mental health in the workplace

This year has seen the spotlight turn to mental health concerns, particularly as a number of celebrities and members of the royal family have discussed their own personal struggles with mental health.  The topic of mental health is still seen as a stigma, particularly in the work environment where employees may not want to show signs of weakness, or may fear consequences such as demotion, disciplinary action or dismissal.

In a survey conducted earlier this year by the charity Business in the Community, 60% of the 3,000 people questioned said they had experienced mental health issues because of work, so employers really need to be looking at their whole employee journey, not only supporting employees with existing poor mental health but identifying the trigger points and stopping cases before they start.

ACAS Mental Health guidance

In order to help employers, ACAS have released new guidance in how managers can support employees experiencing poor mental health. 

The new guidance covers the following main areas: 

1. The role of a manager when supporting employees and their mental wellbeing 

The Mental Health at Work Report 2017, conducted by Business in the Community, identified that just one in ten people surveyed felt they could tell their line manager about a mental health issue.  The ACAS guidance gives tips on how managers play a vital role for employees who may be struggling by being approachable and regularly monitoring the wellbeing of their team through appraisals or catch up meetings, with the aim to review workload and targets.

2. How to spot the signs of mental ill health 

The signs of poor mental health will manifest differently for each employee, but managers should be aware of the common signs that can be displayed, which include:

  • Changes in behaviour or mood
  • A change in the standard of work
  • Regular sickness absence or tardiness at work
  • A reduction in their interest and approach to work

Managers should be prepared to, and welcome, open discussions with their employees about how they are coping at work, particularly if they do notice a change in behaviour.

3. How to start conversations and support employees in developing their own Wellness Action Plan 

Wellness Action Plans are particularly beneficial for those who have experienced poor mental health in the past, as they help clarify the following points:

  • The impact mental ill health has on their work
  • How a manager can support them
  • The triggers and symptoms that are particular to them

4. Encouraging employees to talk to each other about their mental health, and how to manage an employee who may feel unable to talk 

Approaching an employee who you believe may be struggling with their mental health is a difficult conversation to have, and one that they may shy away from.  Being able to effectively have this initial conversation is an important one, and ACAS provides useful tips and insights, while reminding managers that each person will react differently.

5. Supporting a team member through a period of mental ill health 

The extent of the employees’ mental ill health will result in different approaches, particularly if their mental ill health amounts to a disability.  In any case however, it may be that managers need to make reasonable adjustments to support that employee while they are still at work, or to help them return to work in a manner appropriate to their condition.  Engaging with Occupational Health will be a productive step to identify reasonable adjustments that can be made.

6. How managers can support the rest of their team should one be experiencing mental ill health 

When one employee may have mental ill health, it is important that managers do not neglect the rest of their team; they may also be faced with the same concerns, and if the employee is off sick it will naturally have an impact on their colleagues managing their workload.

7. Managing absence and their return to work, when appropriate 

There are a number of reasons why those suffering with poor mental health may need to be absent from work; they may be on medication which means they are not able to travel, or they simply may need to recover away from the stresses of the work environment.  If this is the case, managers must remain in contact with that employee, to a level agreed with the employee, so as not to enhance any anxieties they may be feeling about being away from the workplace.  Areas to agree with the employee include how and when the contact should be made, and what the employee would like their colleagues to know about their absence.  A manager should not seem to be pressuring the employee to return to work and look at options for a phased return, something Occupational Health may be able to advise.

When they are able to return to work, again managers must handle this accordingly through return to work interviews; it may be appropriate for the employee to draw up a Wellness Action Plan to minimise the chance of them becoming ill again.

8. Approaching potential capability or disciplinary matters 

The ideal result for both employer and employee is that the employee returns to work and is able to continue with their duties as before their illness.  This is not always the case however and occasionally further absences happen or their standard of work declines.  In these situations, further adjustments may need to be made, or you may decide that disciplinary or capability procedures need to take place.  In this situation, managers must follow their company policies and ensure that a fair process is followed.

The ACAS guidance is a useful starting point for managers’ development in this complicated area of employment law; however we would always recommend you seek legal advice for any issues you encounter. 

To read the full guidance, you can visit the ACAS website here, or contact Howard and the Employment team on 02380 717717 or email


This is for information purposes only and is no substitute for, and should not be interpreted as, legal advice.  All content was correct at the time of publishing and we cannot be held responsible for any changes that may invalidate this article.