Fresh off the back of Mental Health Awareness Week, and keen to keep the conversation going, I am writing to you to raise awareness of two new pieces of ACAS guidance:
If you’ve ever felt stressed at work, or managed someone else who has, then this article may be of particular interest to you.
Is the guidance legally binding?
The guidance notes are, as they say on the tin, guidance only. An employer is not under a strict legal obligation to follow them. However, employers would be well advised to do so. Not only will the guidance help employers to appropriately manage difficult conversations with their employees, but they also undoubtedly demonstrate best practice in these areas to which tribunals will almost certainly have regard. Let’s look at each piece of guidance in turn.
1. ACAS guidance: managing work-related stress
- causes and signs of stress,
- understanding the law on work-related stress,
- supporting employees with work-related stress, and
- preventing work-related stress.
Causes and signs of stress
Whilst some people benefit from certain amounts of pressure, when there is too much pressure it can lead to stress. There are many factors that can cause stress at work, for example, too many or conflicting demands, lack of support or training, or workplace conflict (for more on workplace incivility please see our previous blog here).
It's important not to forget that life events outside of work can have an impact on work-related stress, for example, divorce, caring responsibilities and the menopause (for more information on menopause in the workplace see our previous blog here).
Employees do not have to tell their employer about their personal problems, and are often reticent to do so, but doing so may enable them to get support and could help to prevent more serious problems. Managers should also look out for signs of stress among their colleagues.
Understanding the law on work-related stress
Managing work-related stress
Managers should be “sensitive and supportive” when talking to staff about work-related stress and foster an “open and honest” environment at work. Part of supporting an employee may be to signpost any internal or external specialist help and reassuring the employee as to the confidentiality of the information they are sharing (whist also being clear as to any limitations on this – for example, to get specialist help where the employee’s safety is at risk).
The guidance also discusses the need to balance regular contact with employees on sick leave to avoid issues such as isolation with the need to avoid overwhelming the employee. The guidance emphasises the importance of checking the level of contact that is helpful for the employee.
Preventing work-related stress
There are steps that both employers and employees can take to help prevent work-related stress. For example, employers are advised to have clear policies on stress and mental health, encourage their employees to raise concerns, provide training to managers as to how best to deal with work-related stress and promote a work-life balance. Similarly, employees should raise awareness of issues that may be causing them stress at work, ask for help, and make use of any training and support offered by their organisation.
To read the guidance in full, click here.
2. ACAS guidance: reasonable adjustments for mental health
Reasonable adjustments are changes that an employer makes to alleviate or minimise a substantial disadvantage that an individual is facing due to their disability. As you know, mental health conditions can amount to a disability where the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on an individual’s abilities to carry out their day-to-day activities. Under the Equality Act, employers are required to make reasonable adjustments in certain circumstances, including when they know (or ought reasonably to know) their employee is disabled.
Here are my top four take-aways from the ACAS guidance: pizza, pasta, curry, and sushi...only kidding. My key guidance related take-aways are:
- Do not construe the definition of “disability” too narrowly. Employers should try to make reasonable adjustments even if the mental health issue in question does not, strictly speaking, amount to a disability.
- Mental health can take a huge toll on our lives – it affects how we think, feel and behave. It is important that employers take mental health issues as seriously as they would physical injuries. Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t real.
- Mental health issues can start suddenly, build up gradually over time, or even fluctuate over time. Every job and every person is different, and so a reasonable adjustment that works for one individual won’t necessarily work for another. What works for an individual may also change over time. It is important that reasonable adjustments are reviewed on an on-going basis.
- Many people find it hard to talk openly about mental health. Whether you are an employee suffering with your mental health, or a manager helping an employee with their mental health, these conversations can be daunting and that is completely understandable. Having absence and reasonable adjustment policies in place can make the conversation much easier for employees and line managers as both parties know what is expected of them.
To read the guidance in full, click here.
There are some common themes that can be drawn from the two guidance notes that demonstrate ACAS’s view as to best practice in managing employees with mental health difficulties:
- employers and employees should tackle issues together,
- employers also ought to recognise the stigma surrounding mental health issues. Managers should be able to spot the signs of ill-mental health and act appropriately,
- every individual experiences mental health difficulties in disparate ways. Therefore, responding to mental health issues ought to be tailored for the individual, and
- employees should seek, and employers ought to give, "reasonable adjustments", before a strict legal entitlement arises. Any adjustments should be with the view to tackling the root cause of the stress or mental health difficulty.
With special thanks to Alex Evans, a current paralegal in our Employment team, for his help in preparing this blog.
This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.
© Farrer & Co LLP, May 2023