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Do we need to monitor employee mental health?

14 May 2015

Do we need to monitor employee mental health?

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The idea of actively monitoring the psychological state of employees goes against every instinct we have in HR about respecting privacy and individuality. We pride ourselves on recognising that employees have differing feelings, beliefs and attitudes; we don’t treat employees as robots that need maintenance.

But we, quite rightly, begin to question our own beliefs and values when the Germanwings air crash tragedy occurs. Who could have imagined that a suicidal co-pilot, with a history of mental health problems, would intentionally crash his plane into the Alps, killing 150 passengers and crew.

Since the incident in March, aviation authorities internationally have ordered flight operators to review their processes on monitoring pilot mental health. There have also been calls for any employees involved in public safety work to undergo mental health assessments; that could include nurses, police and drivers of any kind. The increasing availability and use of wearable technology makes measuring and monitoring abnormal vital signs, sleep patterns and other indicators of psychological disorders, more possible.

Understanding, not monitoring

One of the main lessons from the Germanwings air crash is that many pilots feel unable to be open about any mental health issues. How would a pilot, or any member of air crew, feel now about going to their boss to talk about feelings of anxiety and depression?

It is important not to make knee jerk reactions and quick policy decisions, on the back of crisis, but to consider the risks and assess a variety of responses. It's clear that the issue of the mental health of pilots has to be tackled imaginatively and sensitively. In some organisations there might be huge disincentives for employees to seek help for poor mental health, which, in some cases, could be career-ending.

Monitoring mental health of people in careers where there are accepted to be high levels of risk or potential for trauma is a difficult challenge. Staff in these areas, like emergency services, air transport, armed forces etc., often have very well developed coping strategies and can operate during times of high tension and pressure. The problem is that these employees often consider themselves to be ‘tough’, almost superhuman. The existence and constant reinforcement of these stereotypes can make it very difficult for employees to ask for help if they are struggling or feeling vulnerable with anxiety or depression.

It's imperative that employers encourage a culture of acknowledging that all employees, regardless of their level of seniority, their tasks, their level of risk and responsibility, are human beings with both strengths and vulnerabilities. Police officers, pilots, oil platform workers and Chief Executive Officers are all subject to the same distressing events as other people, whether this is divorce, illness, financial pressures, addiction, disruptive children, bereavement or loss.

In a particular context where some form of monitoring of mental health becomes essential - in the current climate for pilots, for example - then it needs to be done by a reputable mental health professional. Mental health monitoring has as its aim to discuss the impact that the work has on the employees’ mental health. We are very sophisticated at assessing levels of physical risk within workplaces, such as loud noise or lifting heavy equipment, but how sophisticated are we at assessing the mental health risks of punishing rotas, ever-changing priorities, tough targets, abusive customers, bullying colleagues, highly emotional situations, conflict or isolation?

Create a culture of openness

Transparency is what matters. Mental health is a joint responsibility. Employers need to do all they can to create the kind of working environment, culture and relationships with employees that make it possible for them to disclose any mental health issues when they occur. Employees need to recognise when they have a problem that is affecting their work and be willing to disclose what's happening and take responsibility, alongside their organisation, in trying to address the problem.

In practice there are a number of issues for an employer to consider. An 'open' culture can't be forced. For example, if your business involves working areas where there is a tradition of 'banter', such as manufacturing, for example, where staff might use humour to defuse the everyday stress of working in a high-risk environment, there can be less willingness to be open about mental health. All employers should make information and resources around mental health accessible, demonstrating awareness and understanding of how commonplace and 'ordinary' anxiety and depression can be.

A way to access resources, events and a network of organisations looking at ways to address the issues is to sign up to the Mindful Employer charter (www.mindfulemployer.net/charter). This has already been done by major employers like BT and Nationwide, but is equally relevant to smaller firms. The charter was set up in response to a growing recognition that people with mental health issues were still being discriminated against in recruitment and selection processes, and that something more than legislation was needed: a change in attitude and greater understanding among employers that, once appropriate support is provided, most people go on to contribute like any other employee. There is also a national campaign, Mental Health First Aid, where employers can access training for staff on how to recognise and prevent worsening problems (http://mhfaengland.org).

As a first rule, managers need to be clear that they aren't expected to be experts in this - no-one within an organisation needs to think that their role is to solve mental health problems. The role of HR and managers is to have general knowledge of the implications of mental health issues, to be understanding and to have conversations that facilitate a positive next step. Follow-up is then critical. Employees need to be given a clear route forward, whether this is access to an Employee Assistance Programme provided by the organisation, to counselling or to speak with their GP.

More organisations are rolling out workshops for managers on awareness of mental health issues and how to manage them. For example, at Validium we recently ran a national programme of workshops with managers at the Royal College of Nursing. The ‘When HomeComes to Work’ workshops gave managers the opportunity to share their experiences of helping staff affected by issues outside of work and to realise the benefits of supporting staff as early as possible, instead of waiting until a personal problem had a serious impact on their performance at work. There have already been a range of successes as a result of the managers putting their new empathy skills into practice. 87% of managers said the workshop taught them how to take an empathetic approach and 88% of employees who contacted the Validium EAP said the practical and emotional support provided had stopped them going off sick.