WorkLife

Our thoughts on the world of employment law - and beyond.

Mental Health Awareness Week – From Survive to Thrive

8-14 May is Mental Health Awareness Week.  Mental ill-health has been in the news a lot recently and no wonder.  It accounts for 23% of NHS activity, costs the British economy £15bn per year in lost productivity and is now the leading cause of long term sickness in the UK. 

It seems to be generally accepted that juggling work and a semblance of family or social life can create inescapably high levels of anxiety, stress and even depression.  For some people, the cost of mental health issues can be far higher and have devastating effects on their lives and those around them, including upon their workplace.  

Mental health issues in the workplace

Last month Jonathan Eley addressed the legal issues of long term sickness absence in his blog and all HR Managers are aware just how complex (and expensive) such issues can become.  For employers, mental health problems suffered by employees can manifest itself in a myriad of ways, such as: poor performance, inappropriate behaviour or sickness absence. 

Research by AXA PPP Healthcare recently found that only 47% of employees would tell their line manager the truth if they were taking a sick day for stress, compared to 88% who would do so if they had flu.  A recent study by mental health charity Mind, found that around a quarter of employees suffering with mental health issues attributed this to problems at work.  Just over half of respondents reported that they felt supported by their employer (for example, by being made aware of Employee Assistance Programmes or offered reasonable adjustments).  These figures show movement in the right direction, but demonstrate that there is still a long way to go. 

Government policy

The (current – groan, I know, another election) Government recognises the importance of ensuring that there is support for those who suffer mental ill-health.  In January this year, Theresa May announced a comprehensive package of measures to transform mental health support in schools, workplaces and communities.  In her statement she said: "I want us to employ the power of government as a force for good to transform the way we deal with mental health problems right across society."  £67m is already in place for a mental health platform which will encourage employees to check their mental health symptoms online and access digital therapy. 

In a work context, an expert review has been commissioned to consider how best to support employees with mental health problems to thrive in the workplace.  It is planned that this will involve practical help, including promoting best practice among employers and offering tools to assist with employee wellbeing and mental health.

There will also be a review of recommendations around discrimination in the workplace on the grounds of mental health.  While this is unlikely to change the law itself dramatically, if at all, it seems clear that mental health will be a focus of employment policy, which has the potential to impact on the approach taken by Employment Tribunals towards employers.  Failure by employers to make reasonable adjustments, or to even penalise or victimise those who suffer from mental health problems, will not be taken lightly.

Legal issues

  • Statutory health and safety obligations on employers impose a general obligation to provide a safe place of work and take reasonable care of employees in the workplace.  This is not just about providing high viz jackets and steel capped boots – this means that employers have a duty towards people who may have mental health issues.
  • Employers also have a duty to other employees if there is a risk of a staff member with mental health issues harming others.
  • A safe place of work includes ensuring that a bullying or intimidating culture does not prevail and that when workplace problems arise they are addressed in a supportive manner.
  • There is a duty not to discriminate because of a person's disability – with mental ill-health potentially constituting a disability, depending upon the circumstances.  This would require the employer to make reasonable adjustments to support those with mental ill-health.
  • Ensuring that an employee does not put themselves at risk by soldiering on when in fact the volume of work or pressure upon them is unsustainable and dangerous to their health – and particularly if this is known to the employer - that way personal injury claims lie…..(Walker v Northumberland County Council (1995) anyone).

Practical steps

The focus of this year's Mental Health Awareness Week is to encourage individuals, policy makers and employers to take practical steps to build a mentally healthy country.  Here are a few ideas for where to start:

1. Assess your workplace policies and procedures to ensure that they are employee friendly and reflect mental health issues. 

2. Train managers in how to recognise and support employees with mental health issues, to ensure that, if employees do feel stressed and need to take time away from work or get additional support while working, this takes place.

3. Review your workplace employee assistance provision and ensure it is fit for purpose and promoted internally. 

4. Raise awareness of mental health issues to try to end stigma in the workplace.  To be effective, try to secure senior level commitment for this.

5. Consider implementing systems to monitor and reduce workplace stress, such as risk assessments or employee surveys.  Review and act on results.

6. Good practice for supporting an employee absent or returning to work with mental ill-health includes keeping in touch while they are away, holding return to work interviews and monitoring their wellbeing once they return.

7. Make the most of resources which could help you support employees with mental health issues, such as the government initiatives Fit for Work (which can provide work-related health advice or a referral to an occupational health assessment) and Access to Work (an employment support programme for people with disabilities).   Acas and the charity BITC also provide useful guides for employers on mental ill-health. 

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