Jane Crosby from Hart Brown Solicitors advises business on best practices and policies in managing mental health issues
Harry and Meghan have done a significant amount to highlight an awareness of the issues faced by people suffering from mental health but what are companies doing to help their own employees with problems?
On 6th February a great initiative “Time to Talk Day” brings awareness to these issues and is a real opportunity for employers to review how their policies and culture compare against best practice in mental health awareness. “Time to Talk Day” is a campaign started by Time To Change and aims to bring the nation together to get talking and break the silence around mental health problems. This is only one day but companies need to be mindful of mental health issues throughout the year.
According to the World Health Organisation, lost productivity due to mental illness costs Europe US$140 billion per year. In the UK, workplace mental illness is estimated to cost 2% of GDP and the latest statistics from the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) show that work-related stress, depression or anxiety now represents 44% of all work-related ill health and 54% of working days lost – a total of 12.8 million days in 2018/19.
Due to the changing world of technology, a huge burden is placed on employees to always be available for work and respond quickly to work demands. The HSE found that workload pressures, tight deadlines, too much responsibility, and a lack of managerial support were the main reasons given as the cause of workplace stress.
Email communication has meant that employees have to respond quickly to the needs of the business; while this may be good for a company’s profits in the short term but how many companies encourage their employees to take a break from the strain of workplace pressures by switching of their computers? For many businesses, it is not realistic to have employees unavailable for large parts of the day, but managerial staff can still encourage their staff to make sure they take their allocated rest breaks so their concentration level is improved.
The continuing rise in such figures highlights the need for companies to increase their focus on mental health to ensure employee wellbeing and help reduce staff grievances and sick leave.
Employers have a legal duty and responsibility to look after employees from stress at work by undertaking a risk assessment and acting on it, but in reality it is often simple acts of communication from the managerial staff which can help an employee and make a real difference. Interest and concern in employees’ wellbeing and maintaining open channels of communication between all levels of staff, will help positive company culture to succeed and ultimately increase productivity.
Where an employee is suffering from a mental health condition which has a long-term effect on day to day activity, this may be classed as a disability, requiring the employer to take positive action under the Equality Act 2010. The Equality Act makes it unlawful for an employer to treat a disabled person less favourably because of their disability, without a justifiable reason.
Severe depression or anxiety is not enough on its own to meet the definition of ‘disability’ under the Equality Act, unless it has a substantial, long-term impact on an individual’s abilities. But, whatever the extent of an individual’s mental health issues, there is a responsibility on the employer to provide support and protection from unfair or discriminatory treatment.
Employees need to feel trust that their company culture allows them to speak up if they see a person is struggling because often by communicating with the employee you may find out they are suffering from personal problems. With this knowledge you can implement policies such as “unpaid leave” or “remote working” which may assist those people who are trying to balance the needs of family life while also working full time.
A good starting point is to review processes and practice to see whether they provide support and protection from unfair or discriminatory treatment. If there are gaps, then make sure they are closed. In the same way that employees with physical issues need to be supported to fulfil their role, by seeking out reasonable adjustments to support them, the same applies for anyone with mental health issues.
Remember when someone says that they are “fine” maybe ask again and ask, “how are you really feeling?”
To speak to Jane directly about this, or any other Employment-related matter, please email JZC@hartbrown.co.uk or call 01483 887766.
This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.