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In the week of “Blue Monday”, reportedly the most depressing day of the year, and with the NHS allegedly “haemorrhaging” nurses due to work related stress, the need for mental health policies in the workplace has come under the spotlight. ACAS describes mental health as our “emotional, psychological, and social well-being, it affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, interact and relate to others, and make choices.” The World Health Organisation defines good mental health 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 her or his community.”

In January 2017, the Government commissioned a review into how employers can better support the mental health of employees, including those who currently have mental health problems, to help them remain and succeed in work. The key points that came from the Stevenson-Farmer Review in October 2017 were that:

• Only 39% of employers have policies or systems in place to support workers with common mental health problems.

• Mental health issues give rise to a significant annual cost to employers of between £33-42 billion, with over half of this coming from “presenteeism” (a term used to describe individuals who are less productive due to poor mental health in work). The remaining costs relate to sickness absence and staff turnover.

• The cost of poor mental health to the economy as a whole from lost output is estimated at between £74-99 billion per year.

The report recommends that: “we start from the position that the correct way to view mental health is that we all have it and we fluctuate between thriving, struggling and being ill and possibly off work.” The review recommended that employers put in the following measures to promote and improve mental well-being in the workforce:

Understanding Mental Health

There is still a serious lack of understanding around mental health problems which in turn means that stigma still exist around it. The benefits of workplace education campaigns are that they highlight to employees where support is available and potentially spot other employees who may be showing signs of ill mental health. Further training for management may also give them the confidence to approach staff and support them.

Mental Health at Work Plan

Producing a mental health plan for your workforce will outline the business’s approach on how they will improve the mental health of employees. Further, it demonstrates to employees that there is a willingness to support them and will help point them in the right direction of where they can receive support. The mental health plan may foster a culture whereby employees are encouraged to have open conversations about mental health and feel comfortable in doing so.

Improve Working Conditions

It is self-evident that providing staff with good working conditions, fair pay, job security, training and staff consultation are likely to boost morale within an organisation. A healthy work life balance can help to significantly improve the mental health of staff. While not all these are achievable for every employer, merely an acknowledgement of an employee’s hard-work can boost staff morale and consequently their mental health.

Supportive Management

Fostering a supportive network begins with the senior management of the company. Good management will help retain staff and make sure that work can be distributed evenly helping alleviate work place stresses. Regular team meetings where employees can discuss issues with their line managers will help keep employees engaged, make them feel worthwhile and can allow management to spot any problems early on.

When a Mental Health Condition becomes a Disability

Employers need to be aware that under the Equality Act 2010 a mental health condition may become a disability if the impairment is likely to last or has lasted for at least 12 months and it has a substantial adverse effect on a person's ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. The original requirement for a mental illness to qualify as a disability that it be “clinically well recognised” is now long gone and it is also worth noting that an impairment will be treated as having a substantial adverse effect if measures are being taken to treat it and but for those measures the impairment would be likely to have a substantial adverse effect.  In the case of Father v Pets at Home [2013] the Employment Appeal Tribunal stated that in cases of depression it is probably a matter of common sense that anti-depressants and counselling will alleviate the condition with the result that someone receiving such treatment who appears to be generally fit  may  well have the protection of disability status.

If the mental health issue means that an employee is disabled, the employer may have to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ so that the employee is not disadvantaged compared to non-disabled workers. Reasonable adjustments can include flexible working, time off for counselling or providing equipment or aids to help the employee.  They will also be entitled to protection from discrimination whether directly or indirectly related to their disability or because of something arising in consequence of their disability such as poor attendance or impaired performance.

Conclusion

There is now increasing focus on mental health issues in the workplace, and employers may wish to review internal policies to reflect this and consider the merits of management training relevant to this area. The benefits of having a physically and mentally healthy workforce will mean employees will have better attendance levels, be more engaged in work and there will be less staff turnover. 

If you have any queries about any of the issues raised above, please do not hesitate to contact a member of the Stronachs Employment Team.

Ross Michie, Trainee Solicitor

Chambers UK 2018

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