Transforming Approaches to Mental Health

James Craig FAUA | Independent author

One in four of us will experience some form of mental health problem each year. I had depression a few years ago, which affected my performance profoundly. If you are struggling, visit your GP, and try and speak to someone you can trust – albeit that might be very difficult to do initially.

A mental health condition is classified as a ‘disability’ if it has a long-term effect on normal day-to-day activity (Equality Act, 2010). Your employer cannot discriminate against you, and must make ‘reasonable adjustments’. These adjustments might include a phased return to work (such as flexible or part-time hours), and time off for medical treatment or counselling.

Mental health remains taboo for many, but times are changing. At last, people are starting to realise the devastating consequences that poor mental health can have. Whilst these ‘people’ (be they line managers, senior managers, Deans or Vice Chancellors) might notice that some of their colleagues struggle to perform, the penny might not have dropped that in some cases, though not all, poor mental health can be a contributory factor.

At the same time, as was shared in the working session at Conference, colleagues may have mental health issues without displaying symptoms, and still be performing to a high standard. Creating an atmosphere where colleagues (whether their performance is affected or not) feel confident about sharing their concerns with management is part of the process of breaking down the taboo. If people are happy and resilient, a positive atmosphere will reap positive results, including the delivery of the strategic goals of the institution; so why not, at the same time, make mental health awareness for all staff an integral part of the strategy? There is much that HEIs are doing to help students’ mental health, so crossover can certainly work.

Across all sectors, the cost to an organisation in terms of reduced productivity as a result of employees with poor mental health working sub-optimally is estimated by the Centre for Mental Health to be three times the cost of mental health-related sickness absence. It is therefore in an organisation’s interests to create conditions for employees to be in the right mental state at the outset.

Mind (the mental illness charity) recommends explicit recognition of mental health issues at Board level. In an HEI, this might mean the Vice Chancellor’s management team or equivalent. If an HEI is to take mental illness seriously, it needs to adopt a top-level strategy. This involves, Mind suggests, a three-pronged approach.



The first prong involves promoting wellbeing – conveying a message to everyone that wellbeing really does matter, while raising awareness. This is generated by delivering mental health training for all managers, and engendering a culture of openness where dialogue between manager and colleagues is natural, regular, easy-going and positive throughout the Institution. This can happen at a local level in any organisation where there are pockets of good management; but delivery in some HEIs is patchy, with wide variability. The top management team should have direct influence and, over time, inculcate a uniform culture in which best practice is universal; not patchy.

All Institutions have support structures. Increasingly, resilience courses are offered, including for instance mindfulness, which has become fashionable. As with the strategy, though, support structures need bite – an authenticity, and confidence of staff at every level, which runs through the organisation like the name of a resort emblazoned through a stick of rock.

The second prong concerns tackling the causes of mental health problems. This involves taking stock – understanding the factors that affect mental health, identifying what is being done to
support it, and assessing the impact of the current approach. A policy review is then vital, with continual reflexivity. ‘Temperature checks’ can occur; again, in an atmosphere of openness where
staff are willing to talk and listen.

The third prong involves supporting staff practically. This was the prime area of focus at the Conference session. If the first two prongs are in place, mental health issues will be reduced, but
where disclosure does become necessary, employees should not feel at all nervous or frightened.

Deloitte have ‘mental health champions’ – partner-level staff with whom employees may have open, frank and confidential conversations. There, top managers have a good understanding of mental health issues, and individuals receive help and advice without repercussions.

Staff will always feel more comfortable about speaking to their line managers if there is a culture of openness as described above. A formal mentoring system can also help.

With ‘reasonable adjustments’ should come a bespoke action plan or employee assistance programme, involving all parties in close communication: line manager, Union, medical officers, HR managers, and so on.


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