Managing mental health in the workplace

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In recent years, there has been a real drive to increase mental health awareness and remove the taboos that have previously surrounded the issue. Opening up about the difficulties that poor mental health presents and the benefits to both businesses and employees alike in talking about the subject plays a key role in this effort.

The lockdown and the challenge of embracing a new world of working has presented many of us with our own personal challenges, ranging from returning to an office and remembering how to use the photocopier to gaining the courage to use public transport again. Some may feel excited or emotional whereas others may feel anxious and apprehensive. As an employer our staff as a whole will be feeling a mixture of emotions, positive and negative, which may well affect their mental health and which need to be recognised and understood by colleagues.

What is mental health?

Defined by ACAS as “our emotional, psychological and social wellbeing; it affects how we think, feel and act and how we cope with the normal pressures of everyday life”, a person’s mental health is often less visible to the outside world than their physical health.

Good mental health is defined by the World Health Organisation as “A state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”

Mental health issues are many and varied, but commonly lead to stress, depression and anxiety.

Signals that a person may be experiencing poor mental health can include their acting out of character or becoming unusually moody, short-tempered, withdrawn, emotional, irrational or tired.

An issue may also be indicated by the person concerned working unusually long hours, their making mistakes regularly or by a marked change in their personal appearance. It may also be flagged up by complaints made by customers, clients, colleagues.

Why is mental health so important?

Mental health can have a huge impact on an employee’s motivation, morale and productivity. In turn, this can have a direct impact on the efficiency of the business, including the working relationships within teams and the wider organisation.

Poor mental health can affect a person’s time-keeping, behaviour and output. It may result in a period of sickness absence which can place an additional burden on colleagues. The time required to manage the absence can be extensive and, depending on their sickness entitlement, potentially costly.

What are the legal implications of someone suffering mental ill health?

The longer that a mental health issue continues unchecked, the greater the risk that it could manifest itself in a condition that constitutes a disability for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010.

In such an instance, they will be afforded protection under legislation and cannot be treated less favourably because of their illness. If they are treated less favourably, then this would give rise to a claim for discrimination.

As an example, an employee may be under-performing and performance managed out of the business. If the reason for their poor performance is related to a disability, then this could give rise to disability discrimination and unfair dismissal.

Also, under the Equality Act, an employer has a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate a disabled person’s needs in order for them to perform their role.  Again, failure to do so could give rise to a discrimination claim.

Where someone with a disability is dismissed, and they have two or more years length of continuous employment, this could give rise to a claim for unfair dismissal. The employer will need to have a fair reason for dismissal and have followed fair process.

Depending on the circumstances, if the employer has breached the implied term of trust and confidence in the contract of employment with the employee, and the employee has two or more years length of continuous service, then there could be grounds for a constructive dismissal claim.

Finally, from a personal injury perspective, if the employer’s behaviour has exacerbated the employee’s poor mental health then this could give rise to a claim for psychiatric injury to feelings.

What steps can you take to manage mental health at work?

Placing an emphasis on good mental health and embedding it in the business’ culture is a good starting point. Talk about the issue, raise awareness and offer training and support. This should start at the top down with managers and senior staff promoting it and actively engaging with staff.

Noticing signs early on, knowing how to respond and directing employees towards help is also important. Some businesses have mental health first aiders, specially trained to recognise the signs and symptoms of poor mental health and effectively guide an employee in the direction of support.

Employee Assistance Schemes are provided by some businesses as a matter of course in their benefit package. If you offer this, then it is worth highlighting to employees as part of any mental health training and to encourage employees to access it if they are experiencing any difficulties.

Depending on the severity of the issue, it may also be necessary to involve a medically qualified person such as a doctor, specialist or occupational health to provide an assessment of the individual.

For more information about how you can promote and support good mental health across your business, please contact a member of our team.