The CIPD reported last year that the UK workforce is experiencing the highest level of employee sickness absence for over a decade[1]. The vast majority of employers (87%) also observed presenteeism, whereby employees are coming into work when unwell.

This high level of sickness absence and presenteeism has a significant detrimental impact on the UK economy with the Department for Work & Pensions and the Department of Health estimating that the total economic costs of sickness absence and productivity losses are over £100 billion annually.[2]

Mental health accounts for a significant proportion of sickness absence and presenteeism.  A number of organisations have therefore implemented wellbeing initiatives which proactively seek to reduce workplace stress such as Mental Health First Aid Training, employee assistance programmes and wellbeing champions.

However, the importance of the role of managers in improving wellbeing can often be overlooked in wellbeing programmes. This is despite managers having a crucial role in spotting signs of ill-health, given the oversight and regular contact they have with their team. Indeed, the earlier the signs can be spotted, the quicker they can be addressed.  In addition, improving leadership style can also alleviate the factors that cause or contribute to workplace stress.

Warning Signs

By spotting an employee who is struggling with their mental wellbeing early on, an employer can take proactive steps to support the employee and hopefully prevent the employee’s condition from getting worse and them taking sickness absence. The ability to spot the signs of mental ill-health, and openly engage and support employees who may be struggling with it, are key to creating a supportive workplace environment where employees feel comfortable seeking help.

So, what are these warning signs that an employee may be suffering from mental ill-health? These can include mood swings, a lack of care for their personal appearance, as well as increased use of alcohol. Other signs can include unexplained absences and a withdrawal from regular social interactions.

A study from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development also highlighted the impact that mental health can have on work performance.[3] The results reveal that some 85% of sufferers of mental ill-health find it difficult to concentrate, while 64% take longer to complete tasks. What’s more, 54% admit to experiencing difficulty in making decisions, 48% are potentially less patient with customers/clients, and 37% of sufferers are more likely to have conflicts with colleagues.

As such, an employee suffering from mental ill-health may perform differently to how they did previously – having trouble focusing, having a loss of interest in their work or finding it difficult to multi-task.

Of course, it’s important to remember that these can be caused by other factors – however, if you are concerned about an employee, open and supportive communication is key. When managers and employers have adequate support in place for their employees this may, in contrast, lead to a reduction in presenteeism and an increase in workplace productivity.

The Legal Perspective

From a legal perspective, organisations are obliged to make reasonable adjustments where an employee’s mental-ill health condition amounts to a disability. Adjustments could include implementing flexible working or adjusting workloads. The particular solution will depend upon the circumstances of the individual employee. Crucially, this obligation applies whether or not the employee communicates that they are suffering from a disability if the employer should have reasonably known about it (for example, because they have displayed the warning signs) and the employee is likely to be placed at a substantial disadvantage because of the disability.

Employers should not therefore ignore warning signs from employees but be proactive in having conversations with employees if they are concerned about their health.

The Role of Managers

It is critical that managers receive relevant training to ensure that they have the right skills to have these sensitive, difficult and confidential conversations. They should be equipped with the knowledge to spot the signs of any ill-health and know where to go to for guidance and support within their organisation so they can support their team with mental health issues.

As managers have regular contact with their team, they are also best placed to take a proactive role and review the work stresses that employees may be under and look at how these can be alleviated (with the support of the wider organisation).  Heavy workloads, poor communication, unclear expectations and other aspects of poor management are the leading cause of stress and managers therefore need to reflect on their management style and identify how they can improve wellbeing within their team.  Again, learning and development for managers will be key here in managers reflecting on their behaviours and having the mindset to be able to learn and grow to improve their own wellbeing and that of those around them.

The issue of mental illness is by its nature complex and unique to every individual but recognising the importance of the role of managers in reducing presenteeism, improving wellbeing in the workplace, and providing staff with the tools to address concerns at the earliest signs of any mental ill-health is vital in fostering a work environment that is supportive of its employees’ mental health and their overall wellbeing.





Louise Lawrence
Louise Lawrence
Partner at Winckworth Sherwood | + posts

Louise Lawrence, a Partner at Winckworth Sherwood, specialises in employment and partnership law, advising UK businesses and executives across various sectors, including financial and professional services. Recognised for her advocacy in employment rights, particularly for pregnant women and those on maternity leave, Louise also leads in discussions on workplace EDI, wellbeing, culture, and flexible working.