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Promoting Positive Mental Health at Work: For the Benefit of All

View profile for Katherine Sheerin
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World Mental Health Day was marked on 10 October 2017 amid growing general awareness of mental illness, its impact, and greater willingness to discuss a subject which, especially in the past, has carried a stigma.

This year, the theme is mental health in the workplace. Despite greater openness and public campaigns to improve understanding and support, it can still be hard for employees suffering from mental ill health to raise the problem with their employer and seek help. This may be due to a fear of being judged or discriminated against at a time when the pressure of coping can make employees feel especially vulnerable.  

On the other hand, employers trying to support staff with mental health issues can face challenges such as:

  • reluctance of the employee to discuss their personal mental health;
  • differing severity of mental health conditions and degree of impairment with respect to the employee’s day-to-day capabilities;
  • variable duration of mental ill health impact (eg depending on whether the illness is an isolated episode or a longer-term/recurring issue); and
  • the fact that many mental health problems are related to factors outside the workplace and are therefore beyond the employer’s direct control.

A positive mental health culture and support for employees affected by mental ill health are beneficial on a number of levels.

Firstly, a compassionate, non-judgmental, approach is consistent with fairness and equal opportunities (taking into account that anybody can be affected by a mental health issue in the same way as a physical illness or injury).

Secondly, failing to support staff with mental illness can lead to worsening or compounding of the issue (eg by employees hiding the problem or adopting harmful coping strategies, such as dependency on alcohol or drugs).

Thirdly, mental illness can be a factor in reduced productivity and lack of motivation of the sufferer (along with possible adverse impact on colleagues). Further, there may be health and safety or other “risk” implications in an employee carrying out their responsibilities when their judgment or execution of tasks is compromised.

There are particular obligations on an employer if an employee’s mental health condition amounts to a disability within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010. For these purposes, an employee is disabled if they have a “physical or mental impairment, which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”. It follows that not all mental illness will be a “disability”, however employers must be alert to the requirements involved in managing or recruiting an employee with a mental illness. Note that it is unlawful to discriminate against either an employee or a job applicant because of a previous or current mental health condition that amounts to a disability.

In certain circumstances, employers have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments so as to remove or reduce the disadvantage of an employee’s mental health disability. Whether an adjustment is reasonable will depend on the size of the organisation and available resources but could include, with the employee’s agreement, such measures as:

  • flexible working hours or changes to start and finish times;
  • variation of the employee’s role and/or responsibilities (on a temporary or more permanent basis);
  • permitting home working or relocating an employee’s workspace to better meet their needs;
  • increased help and support from the employee’s manager to ensure they can manage their workload; and
  • providing extra training, coaching or mentoring.

ACAS has released new guidance on promoting positive mental health in the workplace, which includes the following recommendations for employers:

  • educate and inform staff about mental illness;
  • put in place support measures for staff experiencing mental ill health;
  • have a documented mental health policy;
  • commit to tackling causes of workplace stress;
  • train managers to deal with mental ill health issues;
  • ensure senior managers champion awareness and fight stigma associated with mental illness; and
  • maintain an ongoing dialogue about mental health.

Meaningful engagement with workplace mental health encompasses much more than “mere” box ticking and compliance with legal obligations. It goes deeper into the overall culture of an organisation and can impact substantially on how satisfied and productive employees are in their work. It can also lower the risk of “burn out” and human errors of judgment as well as reduce sickness absence.

Moreover, whilst it may be cynical to address the issue purely from a financial point of view, companies that promote positive mental health tend to turn healthier profits too, according to a recent survey of FTSE 100 companies. The research, conducted by Soma Analytics revealed a high correlation between companies whose annual reports mentioned employee mental health/wellbeing and increased profits relative to companies whose reports did not. Although it might be simplistic to link these factors directly without further analysis, it appears possible- yet, perhaps, to be expected - that companies which tend to do more of the “right things” do better generally.

In any event, the growing consensus around workplace mental health is toward greater understanding and openness together with providing support strategies for those that need assistance. This can’t help but benefit all concerned.

For advice on workplace mental health issues or any other employment related concerns, contact the Chattertons employment law team.