Managing mental health issues at work

Advice  |   11 March 2016

According to the Chief Medical Officer for England, 70 million working days are lost in the UK every year due to stress, depression and other mental health conditions.

One in four people will experience symptoms of mental ill health during their lives. According to the Chief Medical Officer for England, 70 million working days are lost in the UK every year due to stress, depression and other mental health conditions. It is estimated that this costs the UK economy between £30 billion to £100 billion per year.

Emma Thompson, employment law specialist at Thackray Williams, looks at what managers can do to help employees and advises how to avoid discrimination claims from employees with mental health issues.

What is mental health?

Mental health is the mental and emotional state in which we feel able to cope with the normal stresses of everyday life. Mental ill health can range from feeling ‘a bit down’ to severe mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, as well as including more common disorders such as stress, anxiety and depression.

Mental health issues are often caused, or contributed to, by pressures of work. Therefore, employers are in a unique position to prevent problems from arising, to identify them and to assist employees when they do occur.

Is mental ill health a disability?

Under the Equality Act 2010, a person has a disability if they have a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. In order to be ‘long-term’, the adverse effect must have lasted (or be expected to last) for one year or more.

A serious mental health issue will often constitute a disability, whether it is a long-standing problem or something that has been diagnosed recently. Some forms of mental illness, such as dementia, depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and schizophrenia, are likely to be classed as a disability. Stress is now one of the most common reasons for absence from work, accounting for around half of all sickness absences, but it may or may not be a disability, depending on the circumstances.

What managers can do to help

The March 2015 Germanwings tragedy, in which a pilot deliberately crashed into the French Alps after hiding his mental health issues from his employer, shows how important it is to tackle mental illness in the workplace before it becomes a major issue. One of the main problems is that people are reluctant to talk openly about mental health for fear of stigma and discrimination. Managers are often unwilling to intrude into an employee’s personal life but it is important to take action, particularly if there are concerns about the safety of the employee, their colleagues, or the public.

Managers can help by establishing a culture of openness and taking steps to promote mental wellbeing at work, such as:

  • monitoring workloads;
  • holding regular review meetings with individuals;
  • carrying out staff surveys;
  • reviewing sickness absence data;
  • holding return to work interviews after sickness absence;
  • offering resilience training; and
  • making flexible working arrangements available.

Line managers will often be the first to notice changes in behaviour or performance that could indicate a mental health issue and should be trained to identify the symptoms of mental illness and what to do if they spot a potential problem. This could involve speaking to the employee and referring them to their GP, occupational health, the new Fit for Work service or counselling.

Legally, all employers have a duty to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all their employees. This involves carrying out risk assessments and managing activities to reduce the incidence of hazards.

How to avoid discrimination

Under the Equality Act 2010, employers must not treat a disabled person less favourably for a reason relating to their disability, without a justifiable reason. This means that an employer must not:

  • refuse to employ someone because of a disability;
  • subject them to a detriment such as paying them less, offering them fewer hours of work, refusing to send them on a training course or failing to promote them;
  • dismiss them without having a good reason and following the correct procedure; or
  • allow a disabled employee to be bullied or harassed.

Employers are also under a duty to make reasonable adjustments to support disabled employees at work. In the case of those with a mental illness, this could mean being more flexible around start times, reducing workload, moving the employee’s workstation to somewhere quieter, allowing a phased return to work from sickness absence, transferring the employee to other duties or decreasing working hours. Reasonable adjustments should be discussed and agreed with the individual and employers should avoid making assumptions about the employee’s illness or stereotyping the employee.

Please contact Emma Thompson for employment law advice on what to do if you believe one of your employees is suffering from a mental health issue or is off sick due to stress, anxiety or depression.

The contents of this article are for the purposes of general awareness only. They do not purport to constitute legal or professional advice. The law may have changed since this article was published. Readers should not act on the basis of the information included and should take appropriate professional advice upon their own particular circumstances.