Malcolm Mackay: Commonsense approach to mental health needed

That well-known political spin-doctor Alastair Campbell was on the stump in Edinburgh recently. Tony Blair's former mouthpiece wasn't speaking about Brexit or IndyRef2, but something more personal: his own battle with mental health. For someone once so familiar on our TV screens, who always appeared so self-assured and unflappable, I found his testimony, and his ability to speak openly and frankly about something that was once such a taboo, extremely moving.

Malcolm Mackay is Chairman of United Employment Lawyers, a network of independent law firms across the UK.
Malcolm Mackay is Chairman of United Employment Lawyers, a network of independent law firms across the UK.

The audience heard from a number of speakers on different aspects of dealing with health issues in the workplace. While some employers may be unsympathetic in dealing with health-related absences, many difficulties arise simply because they don’t know how to deal with them in a way that complies with the law and treats sick employees with the understanding they deserve. Dealing with these matters can involve a complex analysis of employment legislation, employment contracts and policies and the individual characteristics of the health issue in question –at a time when businesses are under increased pressure to deliver results. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

As a seasoned employment lawyer, I have heard some pretty sad stories about how individuals have been maltreated. However, I have also seen many examples of how employers have applied a more enlightened attitude, recognising that everyone wins if problems are tackled sensitively, taking into account the latest thinking and not seeing an illness absence as some kind of misconduct issue.

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Mental health is one of the most pressing and pervasive issues in our society today. It is manifest in almost every kind of work environment through constantly changing methods and work patterns, unremitting pressure on time, and uncertainty about employment. This all causes persistent stress. Some of us learn to deal with this, building levels of resilience and ensuring we take our holidays, breaks to recharge our batteries. But thousands of others find the workplace causes prolonged levels of stress which leads to mental illness. Those who take time off to deal with mental health issues end up being stigmatised. For this reason, they prefer to hide their condition.

This can be exacerbated when people take time away from their work. Or they might be on medication which causes them to become tired, more lethargic and less productive. Fellow employees or colleagues who don’t understand the issues might begin to resent an absentee or less productive colleague, who they might think as lazy and failing to keep up. It’s a dangerous cycle which, if unchecked, spawns fear and loathing.

Employers must develop better ways of communicating about what is going on. It is not enough simply to say someone hasn’t turned up for work. Every employee has a right that their medical condition remain private and personal – but those who fill in the gaps or take up the slack fneed to be kept in the loop.

This is a complex matter. While every workplace is different, there must be a commonsense approach to dealing with and describing mental health. There must be guidelines about what is expected from employer and employee. More must be done to counsel those suffering because of stress in the work environment. Resource needs to be applied to occupational health matters.

A laissez-faire attitudes by managers is no longer acceptable. With sensitive and gentle handling, they can do a great deal to ensure a delicate situation does not escalate. Again, this is about communication and asking how others may be impacted by the absence of someone signed off sick. Empathy can be developed and nurtured, even in the harshest work environments.

There is much talk about productivity levels in UK and Scottish business and how we appear to be falling behind other industrialised nations. Surely the best way to improve productivity is to ensure that everyone has a level of workplace stress that is within their capabilities and that they can handle. It is about gauging whether people are under duress for prolonged periods, leading to mental collapse.

We are really only at the foothills of appreciating how modern work methods impact on mental health and how we can collectively deal with this to prevent stigma. Alastair Campbell must be applauded for speaking out on such a personal matter with great candour. In doing so he is making a valuable contribution to highlighting an important issue in the world of work.

Malcolm Mackay is chairman of United Employment Lawyers, a network of independent law firms across the UK