Advice for line managers

As a line manager, you play a critical role in supporting staff that are experiencing distress and/or mental health problems.

You are the first official contact between the employer and the individual and you can set the tone and also set an example.

In addition to the tips for supporting colleagues, there are several areas that line managers should be particularly aware of.

Managing absence and return to work

As a manager, you will be responsible for administering an absence. In mental health-related absence, the longer a person is away, the less likely they are to return. Early and appropriate contact can make returning much easier.

If you require a medical certificate from a doctor, you can ask the staff member to provide a ‘statement of fitness to work’ (a fit note) from their GP practice. This should give you an idea of whether there are any reasonable adjustments you should make.

Sometimes a phased return to work can be helpful, with someone working a few hours a day and building back up to working their contracted hours.

If you’re unsure what is reasonable, ask for advice from your HR manager or occupational health advisor. You can also seek external advice; the conciliation service ACAS provides a wide range of resources on managing challenging circumstances at work.

Performance management and appraisal

Regular meetings and supervision sessions between managers and their staff are good for business, individual wellbeing and great for staff engagement.

Sometimes even a small (or more significant) drop in performance is the signal that a staff member might be experiencing distress.

If you have to consider a disciplinary/competence process, it is wise to keep an open mind as to whether a mental health concern could be the reason for the drop in their performance. You shouldn’t shy away from using disciplinary or competence policies where needed – unacceptable behaviour and poor performance must be addressed – but keep in mind that fear can prevent a person disclosing a mental health concern until their job is potentially on the line.

Appraisals and career development can be very challenging to people who have lived experience of mental health problems. It can be hard to think about strengths if your self-esteem is low and receiving feedback – whether it is positive or negative – can be very difficult.

If a person hasn’t been performing as well as usual, they may feel guilty or fearful about it. Be honest in assessing their performance – they may feel their performance is worse than it is. It can be useful to agree in advance how to handle any continuing problems.

Encourage your colleague to identify factors or triggers that might play a role in them becoming unwell and consider how to deal with them. You may also want to agree how best to respond to a crisis, and what adjustments you could make to the job on a permanent basis to support them.

Leading during change

The world of work is changing, and many employers are finding there is a need to restructure and make redundancies, or change staff working conditions or contracts.

Any change process is a challenge for staff that can affect their mental health. If you are planning a change process, you can balance some of the obvious stressful aspects by ensuring that decisions are communicated effectively, that people have as much time as possible to digest decisions, and that support is available within the workplace and also via external support such as employee assistance programmes and support to find new employment.

For people with lived experience of mental health problems, change processes can be especially stressful. They may expect to be made redundant, may need extra support, may become unwell, or, on the other hand, may not want to put themselves forward for promotion when they are suitable.

If you have staff who you know have a history of mental health problems, it is worth specifically adjusting for this when planning change.

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