Technological advances and changes to employment law are key issues changing the employment sector. Another is mental health. We consider how the workplace is evolving in relation to mental health and the extent to which it is at the forefront of employers’ minds.
Mental health in the workplace is a serious issue and, until relatively recently, has been an area neglected by many employers. The 2018 Mental Health at Work Report shows that some progress has been made. It reveals that employers are becoming increasingly aware of the need to offer more support to staff at work, with 85% of line managers now recognising that employee mental health and wellbeing forms part of their responsibilities. Despite this, many people still feel unable to seek help from colleagues or managers. Eighteen to 29 year-olds feel less comfortable talking with their manager about mental health issues, compared to staff in their 40s and 50s. This is in spite of the fact that 37% of 18 to 29 year-olds have been formally diagnosed with a mental health condition compared with 29% of employees aged 50 and over. There remains a disconnect between the beliefs of employers and the reality experienced by employees. Fifty-eight percent of senior leaders think that their organisation supports its staff but only 42% of employees believe that colleagues with mental health issues are supported by their employers.
The benefits of addressing wellbeing issues
Employers who support their employees with mental health issues will inevitably reap the benefits. Research by the Mental Health Foundation shows that addressing wellbeing at work increases productivity by as much as 12%. These benefits could include:
- Higher staff retention
- A more productive working environment, as a result of lower levels of sickness absence and because staff will return earlier than they otherwise would if they know they will be supported on their return
- Better staff morale and a more collegiate and open working environment. This is because employees will feel more comfortable discussing their mental health with their line managers.
What obligations do employers have in relation to mental health in the workplace?
Employers have a legal obligation to take reasonable care for the safety of their employees under common law and the Health and Safety at Work Act etc 1974. This duty applies to both physical and mental health. The latter may amount to a disability for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010. The legal test is the same for both physical and mental health conditions. In certain circumstances, employers will have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees. For example, an employee suffering from depression and/or anxiety arising from depression could be helped by the temporary allocation of some of their duties to a colleague. Or an employee with serious anxiety may prefer to start work slightly later than colleagues to avoid travelling on the tube, if doing so exacerbates their anxiety.
Although guidance for employers on how to support mental health at work does exist, such as guidance published by the Mental Health Foundation, there are no specific statutory rules outlining how employers should support their staff who have mental health issues. That said, there is copious guidance online that employers can rely on to assist them when dealing with such issues. The Health and Safety Executive and ACAS are good starting points. The steps that an employer may want to take will depend on the particular circumstances and the nature of an employee’s condition (and also how that person thinks they can be supported by their employer).
Mental health first aid responders
Mental health first aid courses accredited by the Royal Society for Public Health are now being offered to employees so that they can receive training by a quality-assured instructor, to watch for certain behaviours and provide support to their colleagues. Yet, there is no legal obligation to make mental health first aid responders available to staff. Each company will need to take a decision as to whether it is appropriate for the associated expense to be incurred. Broadly speaking, most companies do not employ or train staff to become mental health first aid responders. That said, many, particularly large employers, do have an awareness of mental health issues and the impact they can have on staff, the business and productivity of the workforce. Here at Stewarts, for example, a small number of colleagues have been trained as mental health first aid responders.
What next for mental health at work?
In October 2017, the government authorised an independent review into how employers can better support the mental health of people in their employment. It is extraordinary that there remains a stigma surrounding mental health, which means that both employers and employees often avoid tackling the issue in the workplace. The ‘Thriving at Work: the Stevenson/Farmer Review of Mental Health and Employers’ report recommended that the government should encourage employer transparency when it comes to mental health in the workplace. The report recognises some of the good work being done, and also identifies solutions for employers to adopt to tackle problems caused by mental health. One significant recommendation is an extension of the ‘Wellbeing Premium’. Essentially, this is a tax incentive that rewards employers who can demonstrate their commitment to improving the mental health of employees. It is currently being trialled by the West Midlands Mental Health Commission.
The good news is there now appears to be recognition in government and business that mental health is as important as physical health. Having said that, although the government has been vocal in recent years in recognising the problems that mental health brings to society and the economy, it is doubtful it has the appetite or the time to consider legislating in this area when it is still preoccupied by Brexit. This is a shame given that workplace disability discrimination remains a problem throughout the UK.
This article appears in Issue 1 of Mindset magazine, which was published in November 2019.
Stewarts has partnered with Mindset Magazine, a new bi-monthly publication covering the topic of mental wellbeing. Mindset Magazine’s mission is to help drive forward positive changes in our understanding and treatment of mental wellbeing, and become a leading source of information dedicated to the health of the mind.
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