Managing Mental Health at Work
Employers have to deal with many health and safety issues in the workplace following legal requirements and regulations to keep employees safe. Generally, these are considered to do with physical health, such as the potential dangers of handling materials or working in hazardous environments.
However, employers also need to be aware of their responsibilities relating to managing mental health in the workplace and take steps to address it and improve it. As the UK’s largest single cause of disability, the issue has to be taken seriously.
Workplace mental health statistics
When you consider that each year, one in six workers (close to 17%) experience anxiety, depression and overwhelming stress, you can see the scale of the problem.
- 74% of those who have a mental health problem for over a year are out of work, and 55% who have anxiety or depression for over a year are also out of work
- Mental health conditions were responsible for 18 million days lost to sickness absence in 2015
- Mental illness in the workplace costs employers around £26 billion every year
- 49% of workers would be uncomfortable revealing at work that they had a mental health issue.
The political situation
A review into workplace mental health, commissioned by the Prime Minister in January 2017 and carried out by Lord Stevenson and the CEO of Mind, Paul Farmer, who is also Chair of the NHS Mental Health Taskforce, is currently underway. The review will examine recommendations that may extend protection from workplace discrimination due to mental ill health and will also look at reviewing health and safety regulations. It will also examine provisions for first aid training, and if needs assessments that are already carried out for physical health risks are also to be done for mental health issues.
Taking practical steps to address mental health issues in the workplace
Given the statistics relating to sickness absences and the cost to employers, it makes sense to invest some time and thought into making your workplace one that is both aware and supportive of issues that can arise.
You should also be aware of legislation, especially the Equality Act 2010, to check what might apply to your business’s circumstances.
- Introduce a dedicated counselling service or establish a helpline for mental health issues. This will help give employees with a problem the confidence to come forward to try to deal with it.
- Provide training on issues relating to managing mental health, and include mental health first aid as a standard part of that training.
- Foster a culture that is supportive and open so that anyone who needs help can be reassured that seeking it would not stigmatise them. The use of positive language can also be very supportive in difficult situations, and managers and team leaders should be trained in communication skills.
- There are several organisations, such as the charity Mind, that provide advice and resources, and they will be only too happy to help as your business sets up its needs assessment and strategy.
- There are also organisations that provide mental health toolkits that you could adopt. These include Business in the Community, Public Health England and the Samaritans, with advice that covers how suicides can be prevented.
- Physical activity is known to improve mental health, and you could adopt a programme to develop activities amongst the workforce. One such programme is from the Scottish Association for Mental Health, with the Scottish Government backing it and working on its development.
The legal position
As with most areas of the law, it can be difficult to establish exactly what an employer’s position is in relation to managing mental health in the workplace. One major challenge includes determining if it is the workplace itself that is causing an employee mental health problems or whether it is due to circumstances at home or in their social life.
According to the courts, there are no occupations that are intrinsically dangerous to mental health, though recent studies suggest that in certain sectors there are higher incidences of difficulties. From the perspective of common law personal injury, the main focus is on whether any harm suffered was reasonably foreseeable. This approach also focuses on whether or not reasonable steps were taken by the employer to avoid it.
Counselling service provision and occupational health consultation may help if claims arise. However, it is worth getting advice from professionals in the mental health field to explore the legalities, what your options are, and what you should put in place for the ongoing safety of your employees.
In recent years, awareness of mental health issues has risen up the agenda. The more informed you are, the more likely you are to be able to protect your workforce and your business.