27 September 2023

Up close and personal: Supporting workmates with personal issues

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Michelle Bakjac* finds that workplace adjustments — some very minor and at no cost — can make a huge difference to an employee going through a personal crisis.

I have recently been providing several organisations with training to support both staff and leaders manage mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.

Often, I am asked what workplace adjustments can be made to enhance opportunities to promote mental health.

As a result I really enjoyed reading this article by United Kingdom workplace wellbeing expert, Emma Mamo.

In it she said that workplace adjustments for mental health are often quite small, simple, practical and cost-effective.

They could include everything from offering rooms for quiet work, to starting a buddy system.

Often the change isn’t physical, but about attitude, expectation or communication.

At an organisational level, it is important to have clear policies in place that detail what workplace adjustments are available.

Advice should be provided to line managers on how to support employees who are experiencing poor mental health especially if they need to take time off.

Support measures are crucial for employees and can help to reduce the length of mental health-related absence.

Offering a phased return to work can be helpful too.

Some organisations have policies on leave of absence and extra leave to enable staff who are experiencing a personal crisis to take some time away from work.

A short period of unpaid leave can be effective in supporting people experiencing poor mental health triggered by a life event such as bereavement or relationship breakdown.

Poor mental health is likely to be a hidden disability and many people are reluctant to disclose a mental health problem.

In this case it is good practice for an employer to make adjustments for someone experiencing poor mental health even if they do not necessarily have a disability under the Equality Act.

The Act’s definition of a disability refers to ‘long-term’, meaning 12 months or more.

Because many mental health problems can fluctuate, the law doesn’t adequately protect some people who may still need appropriate support and adjustments at work.

While voluntary and agreed adjustments are supportive, it’s important that people are not treated differently or asked to do things that others are not required to.

This could be keeping extra detailed time sheets as an example.

Being micro-managed or made to account for all of your time can be counter-productive and damage self-esteem.

It may also be discriminatory.

Ensure there are regular ongoing opportunities to monitor and review what’s going well and what’s not working.

This ensures the support and adjustments are helping and can be tweaked if they aren’t quite right.

Below are some types of adjustments that may help to support employees to manage their mental health at work.

They are not prescriptive but examples of what many employees have found useful.

This list could act as a prompt for line managers and employees exploring symptoms and support needs together.

However, it is important to always be guided by what the person experiencing poor mental health says will help them as it can be quite individual.

The goal is to give control rather than take it away.

The examples include: Flexible working or changes to start and finish times; time off for appointments, at short notice if needed; working from home; relaxing absence rules for those with disability-related absence; phased return to work.

Changes to role (temporary or permanent); temporary reallocation of some tasks; redeployment to a more suitable role; change of workspace — quieter, less busy, dividing screens; quiet rooms so people can take some time out; lightbox or seat with more natural light.

Equal amount of break time, but in shorter, more frequent chunks; extra training or coaching (during work hours); increased supervision or support with managing workload; mentor or buddy systems (formal or informal), and mediation if there are difficulties between colleagues.

* Michelle Bakjac is an Adelaide-based psychologist, organisational consultant, coach, speaker and facilitator. She can be contacted at [email protected].

This article first appeared on the Bakjac Consulting website.

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