Mental health at work: an employer’s guide

Mental health problems now affect one in six workers in the UK, so it is important that employers do everything they can to help staff. Establishing a support unit to help those experiencing problems to come to terms with mental illness, begin their recovery and then return to full health is beneficial for everyone involved. First and foremost, it helps talented and skilled individuals to overcome personal problems and perform at their best. It also shows the organisation’s values and treats people in the right way.

What the law says

  • The Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 requires employers to ensure the wellbeing of employees through the implementation of safe systems of work, and the provision of training and relevant information.
  • Employers have a “duty to ensure the safety and health of workers in every aspect related to work” under European regulations. This duty covers work-related stress and other mental health problems.
  • The Equality Act 2010 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 gives employees the right to challenge discrimination. Mental illness is defined as a disability under these acts. Workers can ask for adjustments or amendments to their jobs or workplace, and are protected from discrimination, harassment and bullying.
  • The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 requires UK employers to properly assess the safety risks employees are exposed to while working. This extends to assessment of stress-related health and a need to mitigate any risks identified.
  • United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights supporting the freedom of expression, thought and association.

Spotting symptoms

Workplace mental health problems can manifest in a number of different ways and there may not be any outwards signs to suggest an employee is having a difficult time. Firstly, it is important not to make any assumptions about the mental health of another person. An open and positive workplace culture should empower those struggling to come forward. While there are no hard and fast rules, a few clues that someone may be experiencing a mental health problem include:

  • changes in an individual’s mood, behaviour, work output or motivation levels
  • difficulty with problem solving, decision making, getting organised
  • appearing to be withdrawn, tired, anxious, irritable
  • changes in eating habits or appetite including drugs or alcohol consumption
  • loss of interest in activities or topics a person previously enjoyed

Protect staff from discrimination

The fear of being discriminated against often contributes to a person’s feeling of loneliness and their inability to speak up when they are struggling. A warm and open workplace culture should alleviate these concerns, but employers also have a legal obligation to protect staff from discrimination. This is enshrined in the Equality Act 2010, which gives employees the right to challenge any form of discrimination on the grounds of disability.

The Equality Act 2010 also extends to recruitment. It is now unlawful for an employer to ask health-related questions when looking to hire a new member of staff. The candidate has the right to decide whether they want to disclose their workplace mental health history and if they do decide to do so, that they are not discriminated against during recruitment. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) suggests employers:

  • Visibly showcase a commitment to positive mental health and a desire to pursue equal opportunities for all.
  • Determine essential and desirable requirements for a particular role early on to enable adjustments and flexibility.

Reasonable adjustments are another part of the Equality Act 2010 and are a legal obligation for the employer to make changes to a role to cater to employees. These changes include flexible working policies, enabling workers to commute outside of rush hours, giving them time off for appointments and allocating tasks on a temporary basis if they are challenging or stressful.

What employers can do to provide support

Support is all about positive steps and subtle changes. The primary target is establishing a structure capable of addressing the issues an employee is struggling with. Clear policies are crucial as they will buttress the support system for an individual as they attempt to cope and recover. However, these policies do not have to be exhaustive or complex. Simple, practical and cost effective measures are best. Remember to think about the person and their specific needs. Again, it is vital to be positive and creative.

Making small changes to a person’s role and how they perform that role while providing additional support is recommended.

Job role changes

  • Reallocate certain tasks to alleviate the burden of a job role
  • Change workspace so employee is in a quieter location
  • Support flexible ways of working from home and use connected platforms to keep in touch regularly
  • Implement return to work policies so employees can gradually build up hours and continue full time
  • Put agreements in place to allow an employee leave at short notice for counselling, therapy or appointments

Extra support

  • Manager provides additional support and increased supervision
  • Additional training, mentoring and help with managing workloads
  • Positive support structure providing constructive feedback
  • Debriefing sessions to reduce stress following meetings, tasks and calls
  • Informal or formal ‘buddy’ systems to boost morale and increase communication
  • Identify ‘safe spaces’ for individuals to take a time out and relax
  • Provide self-help information, outline successful case studies, share approaches and adjustments that have worked for others
  • Provide a platform for regular discussion between employees to reflect on positive achievements

Five step plan

  1. Open up a conversation. It does not have to be awkward or difficult, simply ask an employee how they are doing and work from there.
  2. Develop an action plan and make reasonable adjustments.
  3. Manage an employee’s time if they have to take a leave of absence. Keep in contact, be clear their job is safe, and maintain an open door policy so they can communicate.
  4. Plan for the employee’s return to work. Tell them they were missed, discuss worries and concerns and decide on the best route forward.
  5. Arrange for the employee’s return to work. Meet the individual, incorporate phased returns if appropriate, ensure to keep in regular contact.

Positive case studies

  • Simon recently experienced a family bereavement and became averse to public phone calls which were either emotional or challenging. A fellow team member took over these calls temporarily until Simon felt he was ready to make personal contact with outsiders again.
  • Jenna used her lunch break to manage a time out schedule in a quiet work location. Three 20-minute slots each day alleviated her feelings of stress and boosted her productivity thereafter.
  • Alison suffered from anxiety and needed positive reassurance from here manager via simple greetings in the morning and acknowledgement of good work to reassure her that everything was okay.

Disclaimer: The information provided through Legislation Watch is for general guidance only and is not legal advice. Legislation Watch is not a substitute for Health and Safety consultancy. You should seek independent advice about any legal matter.

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