Supporting a member of staff with mental health difficulties
With one in four adults experiencing mental ill-health in any given year, it is very likely that you, as a school leader or senior member of staff, will come across a colleague with a mental health difficulty.
Knowing how to recognise that they are struggling and feeling confident about helping and supporting them is key; especially as taking early action can prevent problems escalating and help individuals to recover more quickly.
However, it’s important to remember that you are not expected to be a mental health expert or to offer medical advice. But as a senior leader you do have a legal duty to ensure the health of your staff, as well as a responsibility to make sure that your team is managed in an effective, professional, supportive and non-stigmatising way. Senior staff should be leading the development of a school culture and ethos around mental health which allows all staff to be open and honest about their needs and experiences. Find out more about staff wellbeing and developing a positive school culture and environment.
It is also vital that senior staff look after their own mental health and wellbeing and seek early support when needed. See, for example, this resource from the Mental Health Foundation.
Early warning signs
Often, the early signs that an individual may be experiencing the beginnings of mental ill-health might be more noticeable to the people around them, rather than to the individual staff member who is experiencing the difficulties. It may be up to their line manager and/or colleagues to recognise these early warning signs and to take action.
One of the most common indicators is a general change in a person’s ‘usual’ behaviour. Other signs might include:
- An increase in unexplained absences and sick leave, or conversely an increase in working long hours and staying late.
- Poor timekeeping.
- Physical symptoms such as headaches and back aches; constant tiredness, low energy levels.
- Changes in behaviour such as an increase in the consumption of caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes, sedatives, etc.
- Changes in performance – not getting things done, out of character errors, indecisiveness, memory problems, conflict with team members and/or manager.
- Unusual displays of emotion, irritability, erratic behaviour, anxiousness, tearfulness; changes in sleep patterns.
Opening up a conversation
If you think a colleague is showing some signs of early mental ill-health you should talk to them, find out what they may be struggling with in the workplace (which might include work pressures or relationships with colleagues), and what might help them.
You may want to encourage them to see their GP or look at ways to offer more support at school – perhaps through your employee assistance programme, or by talking to a charity such as the Education Support Partnership (who offer counselling and support to teachers). The important thing is that you use your empathy, communication and listening skills to make the staff member feel comfortable and able to be honest and open.
The Mental Health Foundation has eight useful tips on opening up a conversation about mental health:
- Set time aside with no distractions.
- Let them share as much or as little as they want to.
- Don’t try to diagnose or second guess their feelings.
- Keep questions open-ended.
- Talk about wellbeing.
- Listen carefully to what they tell you.
- Offer them help in seeking professional support and provide information on ways to do this.
- Know your limits.
Responding to a staff member who says they are unwell
If a colleague tells you they have a mental health difficulty you should discuss it with them, avoiding making any assumptions. Ask about what workplace triggers might affect them (including work pressures or relationships with colleagues) and what support/adjustments might help.
Signpost sources where the member of staff could access support. For example:
- NHS Choices gives information about helplines for adults.
- The Education Support Partnership offers information and counselling, plus a range of resources on managing stress for school and college staff.
- Mind provides information, advice and support to anyone with a mental health issue.
- The Time to Change campaign has put together guidance to help line managers deal with a staff member who discloses that they have a mental health need. Download a copy of their booklet from their website.
Supporting a colleague
Supporting a colleague can feel daunting, and you may worry about saying or doing the wrong thing. But with a positive approach and sensitivity, there is a lot you can do. There are no special skills needed – just the ones you use every day as a people manager such as common sense, empathy, being approachable and listening.
The charity, Mind, in its booklet ‘How to support staff who are experiencing a mental health problem’ highlights three things to remember when supporting someone with a mental health issue:
- Be positive – focus on what employees can do, rather than what they can’t.
- Work together and involve them in finding solutions as much as possible.
- Remember people are often the experts when it comes to identifying the support or adjustment they need and how to manage their triggers for poor mental health.
It can be helpful to develop a support plan or healthy work plan with your member of staff. This can be used to facilitate useful conversations about factors that impact on their wellbeing, identify signs that indicate they may be struggling, and highlight things that may help.
Mind has developed their own version of this type of support plan; find out more about WAPs (Wellness Action Plans) on their website.
A mental health difficulty can qualify as a disability under the Equality Act. This means that a member of staff has the legal right to request reasonable adjustments to be made to their work routine, their work environment or how they do their job.
Adjustments for mental health can often be simple, practical and cost-effective measures to help an individual. They could, for example, involve support with managing workload or reducing timetables, or providing a quiet area for staff to use. There may also be a need to support a member of staff to attend medical or counselling appointments.
The charity, Rethink, has produced a guide to ‘What’s reasonable at work’ which can be downloaded from their website. It includes information about mental health and when it would be seen as a disability.
Time off and returning to work
If someone needs to take a longer period of time off for their mental health it is important to maintain regular contact if practicable, as keeping communication lines open can help prevent staff feeling isolated at home. But this contact must be done in association with HR advice, your school’s absence management policies, the individual’s union (if appropriate) and with the member of staff’s explicit permission.
Managers can sometimes be reticent about being in touch, often because they lack confidence or worry about doing or saying the wrong thing. But, if it is appropriate, it’s really important that you do and that you do so in a professional, supportive and constructive way.
When planning the return to work of a staff member, it’s important to do this in the context of advice from HR and/or occupational health as well as the procedures outlined in your school’s absence management policies. This may include, for example, the development of an action plan which can be discussed and agreed with the member of staff. This might, for example, help identify triggers and outline more general support that the staff member might need. There’s more information about these action plans in the section above on ‘supporting a colleague’.
What to do in a crisis
Sometimes a colleague will need more urgent help. They may be having a serious panic attack, feeling suicidal or perhaps are thinking about hurting themselves or others.
Try and stay calm and:
- Really listen to them, in a non-judgemental way; try and provide reassurance.
- Ask them how you can help or what would help.
- Ask them if there is someone they would like you to contact.
- Keep the conversation going but try not to offer quick solutions.
- If they need immediate help, dial 999 or, if practical, take/send the person to your local A&E unit.
- If it isn’t an emergency, ring the NHS non-emergency number: 111.
Who to contact:
The NHS provides guidance about what to do with a mental health crisis or emergency and who to contact. The charity, Mind, also has information about how to get help in a crisis.