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When Chloe Parker returned from maternity leave to her job as a senior associate at a London corporate law firm, she had just been diagnosed with postnatal depression. At first she told no one, not even her mother. Then she told the human resources team at her firm, as well as the partner who was supervising her.

The HR staff were “brilliant”, she says, because the firm, externally at least, was “all about diversity and trying to keep women”. But “at the coalface”, she adds, her supervising partner reacted terribly. She was given accommodations such as being allowed to attend counselling sessions mid-afternoon before going home early. Yet within “the culture of perfectionism that is a law firm,” says Parker, her supervising partner made it “very clear to me that he was not happy” with the situation.

Eventually, she says, this partner became sharply critical of her and “it just spiralled downwards” to the point that she had a breakdown at work, was signed off sick by her doctor and never went back. The once high-flying lawyer says she could now never rejoin the profession she trained for.

She recently attended an event at a City of London law firm she had never worked in, she says, but just being reminded of the capital’s corporate law environment “in all that glass and steel, and seeing the conference tables and the branded pens . . . it was fight or flight”. Her heart, she says, “was pumping out of my chest”.

The experience of Parker, whose name has been changed because she signed a non-disclosure agreement with her employer as part of a financial settlement, illustrates how employees with mental health concerns can lose their careers and cost their organisations large amounts of time and money in litigation if they do not receive adequate support from their managers.

Even before any legal bills, mental ill health costs UK employers up to £42bn a year in absenteeism, presenteeism (when employees turn up for work but cannot do much because they are unwell) and lost revenues, according to a report from Deloitte published in 2017. Awareness of mental health issues is growing, and many British employers marked October’s World Mental Health Day by handing out pamphlets and green ribbons. But the journey from a company saying it supports good mental health to doing so in practice can be a long one and, too often, one that remains incomplete.

Four in 10 managers have been approached by employees with mental health problems, the Institute of Directors says. Yet the IoD, in its survey of 700 company directors conducted in May, also found that two-thirds of organisations did not offer mental health-related training to managers. Directors questioned in the study said that if a staff member disclosed a mental health problem to them, they most commonly told the employee to see their family doctor.

“There is a lack of understanding of mental health, a lack of training and the lack of the right culture in workplaces,” says Emma Satyamurti, a partner at law firm Leigh Day who advises claimants in disability discrimination cases.

What this often means, Satyamurti says, is that managers who do not know how to deal with an employee’s depression, anxiety or stress resort to methods they have been trained in, which may not be appropriate. “A manager who isn’t skilled at dealing with these issues may resort to tools such as performance management to deal with the problem, because they are not looking in the right place, which is around disability and support.”

In Britain, the law requires employers to make a reasonable adjustment to working conditions for anyone with a disability. Satyamurti says that because mental health conditions are less visible than physical disabilities, managers can struggle to offer accommodations their HR department may have specified, such as working from home or giving time off for counselling or a change of medication.

She says that if someone with depression, anxiety or stress feels trusted by their manager, they are often happy and productive in their jobs. “Where that trust is not there, things can spiral very quickly,” she observes. Even if an employee is allowed to work remotely, employers should guard against trying to get them to account for their time in minute detail, as this can exacerbate a mental health condition, she explains. “As soon as the person feels they are not being understood, not trusted, or treated differently, then the impact [on their health] can be very quick and very difficult to reverse.”

13.3%

of employees below the age of 25 have depression

Alison Pay, the managing director of Mental Health at Work, a training consultancy, works with companies and other organisations to build a supportive culture around mental wellbeing at work. She advises companies, she says, to first make it clear that mental illness is not a taboo, and then to train line managers to notice when a staff member may be at risk, or already suffering from illness. Then, she says, managers need to be trained to respond sensitively, and in a way that does not open the company up to a future discrimination claim.

“Obviously there’s the duty of care the company has to the employee, and then there are the practicalities of getting business done,” she says. “The goal is to navigate a path between the two.”

But, she adds, even a start-up company on a shoestring budget can build a supportive culture around mental health that saves enormous amounts of money and time in the long run.

3.8%

of employees aged over 55 have depression

“It’s amazing what can be achieved with a change of attitude,” Pay says. “A lot of bosses wouldn’t think twice about allowing someone to work from home if they have a broken leg. Making the same accommodation for someone struggling with anxiety goes a really long way towards helping them manage their symptoms.”

Parker agrees, saying that if the partner in charge of her work had been trained in the “soft skills” of management and had displayed more empathy, she would have been in a better position to deal with her illness. The majority of women make a full recovery from postnatal depression, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

What Parker found most stunning about her situation was that the top management of her law firm had clear, stated commitments to supporting mental wellbeing, encouraging diversity and advancing women’s careers.

“But organisations are finding it is not just about wearing green ribbons or holding a few mindfulness sessions,” Pay says. “The biggest issue we work with is on line manager skills.”

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