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When's The Right Time To Offer Mental Health Support?

Written by Charlotte Duggan
06 October 2017

When's The Right Time To Offer Mental Health Support?


When Edward called in sick because he was experiencing low mood after the death of a friend, he didn’t pretend he had a migraine or food poisoning. He said he felt really flat and depressed and couldn’t face coming into work that day because one of his best friends had died.

His manager offered his condolences and used the day-one absence management system to flag his absence as being mental health-related. Even so, no immediate support was offered and everyone assumed Edward would naturally recover.

He didn’t.

Over the next month, feelings of low mood turned into something much darker. Sad feelings of loss about the bereavement started to worsen, bringing to the surface unresolved feelings about the end of a romantic relationship from over a year ago. “Why me?” thought Edward. “Why does everyone I care about abandon me?”

Four weeks later, an OH assessment flagged him as suffering from symptoms of low mood, but because Edward was still sporadically attending work and performing reasonably well when he was in work, they decided to adopt a wait-and-see approach.

Another month went by. Edward’s low mood was starting to worsen and he was exhibiting feelings around despair. Work encouraged him to talk to his GP, but even though he did this, an overburdened NHS couldn’t connect him to a counsellor for at least 12 weeks. Edward felt more abandoned and alone than ever, and three months after he was first identified as having a mental health issue, his employer asked us to step in.

Following a referral, Edward attended a psychological assessment, after which we were able to tell his employer what treatment he needed and give an estimate of how long it would take for him to begin to feel better and more able to function well in the workplace. His employers were happy to fund the treatment and found this to be a very worthwhile investment to get a skilled member of staff back to functioning and coping better in the workplace. 

When should support have been offered?

Bereavement is a natural grieving process and in this instance and, as with so many other mental health issues, the right upfront support can often prevent the individual’s feelings from becoming worse and more entrenched.

So why is it that so many employers wait until things get so serious before they decide it’s time to help an employee deal with a mental health issue?

There are a number of reasons that employers fall into the trap of hoping a mental health issue will sort itself out. Firstly, this approach works very well with most physical injuries. If someone calls in sick with a cold or a bad leg, the chances are that after a few days they’ll feel better and be back to their normal self without you having to do anything.

However, unless someone affected by a mental health issue has been trained how to increase their resilience when they start to feel low, by increasing their social support network, being kind to themselves, getting enough rest, eating well and doing things that gives them joy, then spending time isolated at home will typically make them feel worse. An acute mental health issue, such as stress, anxiety, low mood, bereavement or trauma, can easily spiral into something much worse, rather like a chip in a windscreen that could have easily been polished out instead being left to deteriorate into a huge crack that isn’t so easily repaired.

That’s because although humans can be incredibly resilient, with an innate ability to bounce back, there are times when we need support to do this. The best time to offer this support is when your employee first admits that they’re feeling low and struggling to brush something aside. Even if they haven’t yet gone sick, this is the best time to connect them with someone who can listen to their situation and give them the coping strategies needed to prevent them from succumbing to something that will literally make them too sick to work.

This sort of approach is best carried out as part of a day-one absence strategy, or even before the employee becomes too sick to work. More often than not, the immediate support provided by a good EAP, which directly connects individuals with professional mental health experts, is enough to help most employees strengthen their support network and self-care regime enough to get themselves through a difficult patch.

In the event that any initial treatment has already started to tap into a more serious underlying problem, the EAP can direct the employee for extra face-to-face counselling, where this is included in the EAP, or work with the employee and their manager to make the case to HR for them getting extra treatment or support.

If the employee has become so affected by an issue that they no longer feel able to do their job – perhaps they’re feeling too affected to work in a customer-facing role following a traumatic incident– specialist mental health providers such as ourselves can work with the employer and employee to identify the cost and likely outcome of specialist rehabilitation treatment. 

By letting a mental health issue spiral into something very serious before taking action, the likelihood of the employee making a full recovery becomes reduced and the cost of doing so increased. Therefore, the sooner you can offer appropriate support, the more likely you are to significantly reduce your mental health-related absence bill, if not eradicate it altogether.

It’s not so much a case of ‘a stitch in time saves nine’ as ‘a referral in time saves nine… weeks of unwanted absence.’

To set up a free consultation to discuss the opportunities for you to reduce your mental health absence bill, please call us on 01494 685253.

Find out how GWR, the UK’s largest rail network operator, has been encouraging managers to refer employees in need of mental health support. Read case study