Mental Health – conflict of interest

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Mental Health

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Mental health in the workplace is one of the most significant HR challenges and rarely is there a disciplinary or grievance issue or bullying investigation or a performance management issue where mental health is not referenced.

It is an ever present in the workplace and it is important to understand from a legal standpoint that a fundamental principle is that the employer owes the employee a “duty of care”.

“Are you the employee’s therapist or their employer?”

Recently, whilst dealing with an issue with a client which involved an employee with a mental health issue, I challenged the client and asked – “are you the employee’s therapist or their employer?” They were aghast at the directness of the comment but accepted that the point was well made.

Herein lies a significant issue – the vast majority of us at work are not mental health specialists and think that we should help an employee when they have difficulties but actually, there is a risk that our actions are compounding the problem. Employees who display mental health issues are often reluctant to seek specialist help and are in denial – many carry on coming to work because (i) they don’t want to get help or refuse to go to their GP and (ii) they may only get SSP if they’re signed off by their Doctor.

Many businesses now have Mental Health First Aiders and these people do excellent work and are trained to identify and recognise mental health issues but not to provide specialist help because they aren’t clinically qualified. Their role is to sign post and point them in the direction of professional clinical help.

Recently, a client told me about an employee who had mental health issues and he insisted on coming to work because he said he preferred to come to work because of the social inter-action and loneliness if he stays at home.

But – first and foremost you are their employer.

The immediate reaction is to be supportive which is admirable but the workplace is not a therapy centre and in most situations, an employee should be getting medical help but the biggest challenge with mental health is getting employees to face up to their problems.

Conflict of interest

We often create situations where we have a conflict of interest. The natural instinct of Team Leaders, Supervisors, Managers is to be supportive to their team but there may come a point where these same people who were once supporting an employee now has to face the employee in a difficult conversation about their future in the business.

Getting too close to employees…

In some environments, the Supervisory/Management structure gets very close to their team – some might say too close – socialises with them, befriends them on social media……and actually forget that their core role is to line manage them and socialising with them outside work can lead to a conflict of interest when they have to have difficult conversations.

Similarly, a lot of employees confide in their work colleagues about their mental health issues on the basis that “I’m going to tell you something but you mustn’t say anything…..” This is putting people in a very difficult situation and often they feel conflicted and they want to be supportive but people with serious mental health issues need specialist help.

The number of mental health issues in work is only going to increase and Companies have a responsibility to put processes, procedures and mechanisms in place, run workshops to increase awareness to ensure that employees with mental health issues can be supported without causing a conflict of interest.

Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs)

Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) are excellent because they give employees an opportunity to off load in confidence with someone who is independent of the business. Also, more companies are now engaging commercially with Counselling organisations where specialist Counsellors can offer support.

Let’s emphasise those words – “specialist” and “independent”. Employees often need specialist help from people who are trained, qualified and experienced in dealing with such issues and wherever possible, such people should be independent – remote, distant, separated from the organisation structure to avoid a conflict of interest.

Occupational Health Reports

Referring an employee with mental health issues to an independent Occupational Health doctor is also a good call. It demonstrates that the employer is being supportive and can give useful insight on the employee’s state of mind whilst also exploring adjustments to enable a possible return to work.

Employers must ensure that mental health issues are taken seriously by putting procedures and mechanisms in place to deal with such issues rather than by being an employee’s therapist.

If you want advice on any of the issues raised, Adrian Berwick gives practical advice and support – either call 07885 714771 or e-mail

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