Supporting mental health in the workplace

posted by KeithDaniel

The past year has been tough for most, with more uncertainty on the horizon with the escalating cost of living. The UK’s Mental Health Awareness week took place from the 9th to 15th May 2022, against that backdrop, we thought that now was a pertinent time to discuss mental ill health in the workplace.

According to research undertaken by Mind, more than half of adults (60%) and over two thirds of young people (68%) said their mental health worsened during lockdown. As a result of the pandemic and now in light of recent events, many have developed new mental health problems and for some, existing mental health problems have worsened.

Quality Compliance Systems undertook a survey which discovered that only 14% of 2,000 workers surveyed said they felt comfortable discussing their mental health worries at work, compared to 42% of workers who felt able to talk about physical conditions. This suggests that there still appears to be a stigma attached to mental health issues in the workplace. 

ACAS has produced a number of helpful resources concerning supporting mental health in the workplace which can be accessed here.

Disability and duty of care

It is important to note that employers have a duty of care, meaning they must do all that is reasonable to support employees health, safety and wellbeing.

It is important for employers to understand that mental ill health can be considered a disability in accordance with the Equality Act 2010, subject to the mental impairment having:

  • a 'substantial adverse effect' on the employee’s day to day activities (for example, they have difficulties focusing on tasks, difficulty being motivated, difficulty with their sleep patterns etc; and
  • it lasts at least 12 months or is expected to last 12 months or longer.

If the employee is disabled, an employer may need to consider whether reasonable adjustments need to be made to ensure that the employee is not placed at a substantial disadvantage because of the mental impairment

Practical suggestions

We set out below a few key pointers to help organisations move towards a more open and supportive workplace culture.

Talking to an employee

A line manager who believes that a member of staff may be experiencing mental ill health should take the lead and attempt to speak to the staff member in private. As well as remaining supportive throughout the meeting, the line manager should also:

  • Ensure that they are not distracted (e.g. computers and mobile phones should be turned off);
  • Listen actively and be sympathetic and understanding;
  • Use open questions;
  • Reassure the individual that they are there to help them and offer support; and
  • Remain open minded.

Whilst a lack of knowledge can be a defence to some disability discrimination claims, knowledge doesn’t need to be actual, it can be implied based on what the employer does know and the conduct it observes.

Although you cannot force an employee to share details of their health, it may be helpful to explain that without a clear understanding, the opportunity to provide support may be missed.

Do not underestimate the importance of line managers

Line mangers play an important role in promoting good health in the workplace. They are usually the ones responsible for dealing with mental health in the workforce day to day. However, many can lack the confidence or experience to manage this alone. Therefore, consider putting in place support and training to help them recognise the early signs of a mental health condition. Make it clear that they are not expected to become experts in mental health or to handle problems alone – instead they are there to flag problems and signpost the support and resources available.

Create a mental health policy

A consistent approach towards mental health issues is imperative. A mental health policy will go some way to achieving this – line managers can refer to one document when requiring guidance to ensure that a consistent approach is taken. A policy also helps communicate the organisation’s commitment to promoting positive mental health in the workplace.

Draw upon specialist resources

Many mental health charities are happy to provide support to both employees and employers who are struggling to address mental health issues. Making sure the employee is aware of these organisations and speaking to them yourself will help you understand what resources may be available to the organisation.

Employers can benefit by setting a clear internal approach to mental health and drawing on ever-increasing levels of external expertise and resources. Those that don’t are going to be at a competitive disadvantage and may even be exposed to disability discrimination claims.

Hybrid working

Some employers have either introduced hybrid working or are considering this as a long-term approach. There are many benefits to hybrid working such as a better work-life balance, increased leisure time and less commuting and reduced travel costs. Employers can also benefit with increased employee retention and job satisfaction due to the flexibility hybrid working provides. Therefore, hybrid working can support mental health, subject to ensuring employees are fully supported and remain engaged when working from home – a clear policy will assist in ensuring hybrid working is successful.

On 30th June 2022, Berry Smith is hosting a virtual training seminar aimed at HR professionals and managers with HR responsibilities which will be hosted by Sarah Alford (Partner), Michael Shutt (Senior Associate) and Caitlin Rees (Solicitor) in the Employment & HR team dealing with mental ill-health in the workplace. More details can be found here.

Please contact us if you would like more information about the issues raised in this article or any other aspect of employment law at 029 2034 5511 or employment@berrysmith.com