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Free article: Mental health in the workplace

Published: Monday, 04 May 2020 19:57

As teaching staff and headteachers continue to leave the profession under the pressures of workload and accountability, Yvonne Hardiman takes a timely look at mental health in the workplace.

Summary points

• The more our mental wellbeing suffers as a result of pressure, the less resilient we become and the more likely we are to suffer from mental ill health.

• Employers have a legal duty to provide a safe place of work for their workers.

• Employers also have a duty to make reasonable adjustments if an employee is suffering from an illness or condition that amounts to a disability, including mental impairment.

• Managing the factors that result in pressure at work, including making reasonable adjustments, contributes to positive mental wellbeing and helps to minimise the risk of mental ill health.

Research consistently shows that poor mental health is increasingly becoming one of the most common reasons for sickness absence. Although we have come a long way, the myths, stigma and assumptions surrounding mental health still prevail. This leads to fear of speaking out about mental health, failure to be diagnosed and, subsequently, failure to receive the right treatment.

This is bad news for both the workforce and their employers. We all need to take action if we want to have a positive effect on our own mental wellbeing and that of the people around us.

Inaction, such as failure to speak up about mental health, is borne out of lack of understanding. So first of all, let’s take a quick look at what we mean by mental wellbeing and mental health.

Mental wellbeing

Mental wellbeing is about the way we react to pressure.

At work, pressure is likely to come from our workload, conflicting priorities, whether we feel trusted and whether we trust others. It might come from worry about job security, feelings of unfairness, whether we feel a sense of belonging in our immediate team and the way we interact with colleagues in the wider organisation.

Of course, pressure can also be derived from personal issues such as family problems, relationship issues or money worries. All these factors contribute to the state of our mental wellbeing, diminish our resilience and contribute to how we handle pressure at work.

When we find ourselves unable to cope with the pressure, our mental wellbeing suffers. Worry can affect our sleep and we become tired and irritable. This pattern can soon get out of hand if we don’t recognise what’s happening and take positive steps to address it.

The vital link between mental wellbeing and mental health is that the more our mental wellbeing suffers, the less resilient we become and the more likely we are to suffer from mental ill health.

Mental health

Mental ill health occurs when we experience a diagnosable condition such as anxiety disorder, depression or obsessive compulsive disorder. There is a wide range of mental health conditions and they can vary from mild to extremely serious.

Managing the factors that result in pressure at work, including making reasonable adjustments, contributes to positive mental wellbeing and helps to minimise the risk of mental ill health.

Assessing the risks

Not only are employers in a unique position to be able to encourage people to talk about mental wellbeing and mental health, they have a legal duty to provide a safe place of work for their workers. This includes carrying out risk assessments and taking measures to ensure that any identified risks are minimised or, if possible, eliminated.

Employers also have a duty to make reasonable adjustments if an employee is suffering from an illness or condition that amounts to a disability (defined in the Equality Act as a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities).

The HSE has identified six main pressure points in the workplace:

• The demands of the role, for example how much work there is, deadlines for completing the work and conflicting demands.

• How much control we have over the way we carry out our job, when we take our breaks and how involved we are in decision making that directly affects our job.

• How much support we have, for example from our managers or team leaders and whether we have the knowledge, skills and tools to carry out our roles efficiently.

• Whether we have positive working relationships.

• Whether we know that our work contributes to the employer’s strategic objectives and can see how we fit into the big picture.

• If we feel informed about what is going on in the workplace, especially during times of change.

A major factor in fulfilling the duty of care obligation is carrying out risk assessments in relation to each of these six pressure points.

This can be done by gathering information from carrying out surveys, keeping records of why absences occur or looking at the reasons for grievances. It can be done by talking to people regularly at informal one-to-one meetings or formal performance reviews to find out how they are feeling about their work and checking if they feel that they are supported.

Compliance with data protection legislation should be borne in mind when gathering information for risk assessments. This includes letting people know what information is being gathered, for what purpose, how it will be recorded and where and for how long it will be kept. Information for risk assessments should be anonymised to protect confidentiality.

The results of risk assessments should be written down, together with what actions need to be taken to address any issues. The most critical aspect of any risk assessment is ensuring that action is taken to reduce risks.

Risk assessments should be living, breathing documents that are reviewed regularly, as any changes will present different pressures and potential solutions.

Some tips for taking action to reduce risk

Tell the workforce what is expected from them

Communicating the organisation’s values and expected standards of behaviour will go a long way to reducing any inappropriate behaviour that may affect mental wellbeing. Key policies include anti-bullying and harassment, equal opportunities, health and safety and stress at work. Ensuring that these documents are available to everyone and holding regular awareness sessions is key.

Dispel myths, stigma and assumptions about mental health

The following myths and assumptions should actively be dispelled:

• Believing that asking for help with a mental health issue is a sign of weakness – seeking help is the first positive step in recognising that there may be an issue and finding a resolution.

• Thinking we can’t do anything to help – we can always help just by listening in a non-judgemental way.

• Believing that people who have poor mental health are not able to work – most people with poor mental health do work. We probably know lots of people in the workplace who have a mental health issue we are not aware of, because they fear asking for help.

• Believing that recovery from mental health conditions is unlikely – with the right help and support people suffering from a mental health condition lead a rewarding working life. The key is being in a supportive environment where they feel comfortable talking about any worries or issues in a timely fashion and seeking a resolution.

• Thinking that mental illness is part of the ups and downs of life – having a mental illness such as anxiety or depression is not the same as having a bad day or feeling fed up. It’s an illness and needs to be treated in the same way it would be if it were a physical health problem.

Appoint mental health first aiders

Mental health first aiders should be trained to provide a safe place for people to talk openly without judgement about any worries they have in relation to mental health. They should also be trained to spot the signs of mental health issues and promote positive mental wellbeing.

Consider flexible working options

Flexible working can be used either as a way to provide reasonable adjustments or to help the workforce handle any pressures that may be affecting their mental wellbeing. Have a flexible working policy and make sure that everyone knows about it.

Consider reasonable adjustments

Reasonable adjustments can be used for anyone who may be struggling to perform their role because of ill health, even if it is not certain whether the health issue is a disability. Reasonable adjustments can be a permanent or temporary measure, for example as a solution for a phased return to work.

Create a culture of trust

A culture of trust can be created by ensuring that managers and team leaders recognise their role to support and enable their team members and have the skills and knowledge to do so. Many people managers are promoted to their role because they have been successful in their professions rather than because they are good at managing people. For example, a qualified, experienced teacher who is excellent at teaching may not have the skills and knowledge to manage people. First line managers (rather than the leadership of the organisation) have the biggest impact on their team and it is part of the employer’s duty of care to ensure that they have the appropriate skills and knowledge to be able to perform their role.

Legal risks to the employer

Aside from the impact on the workforce of not supporting positive wellbeing and mental ill health there are serious legal and financial penalties for the employer. These include the risks of employment claims of discrimination, failure to make reasonable adjustments, constructive dismissal, unfair dismissal and breach of contract.

Talking about mental health will help stamp out inaction and ensure that everyone gets the support and help they need.


Use the following items in the toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:

Checklist – Mental health indicators and coping strategies 

Checklist – Wellbeing in the workplace: example survey questions 

Checklist – Resilience questionnaire for staff copy

Worked example – Organisational action plan for resilience @

Handout – Teacher wellbeing @

About the author

Yvonne Hardiman, Chartered MCIPD, MA (Management) began her management career at BSI, heading up a publishing, printing and warehousing division. In 2005 she joined a law firm as HR Director and Partner. Today Yvonne enjoys running her own HR consultancy assisting organisations with all aspects of people management.

Last modified on Wednesday, 24 March 2021 17:53

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