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07 March 2016

Managing mental health issues at work

It is estimated that one-quarter of people will experience mental health issues during their lives.  This is a real issue for businesses, as it has been calculated that 70 million working days are lost in the UK every year due to stress, depression and other mental health conditions, costing the economy between £30 billion and £100 billion annually. 

Chris Brazier, associate in the employment law practice at B P Collins, looks at what managers can do to help employees with mental health issues and, in doing so, avoid discrimination claims from current or former employees. 

What is mental ill health?

Mental ill health can range from feeling “a bit down” to severe mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. The mental health conditions that employers most commonly come across are stress, anxiety and depression. 

Alongside personal issues, work pressures often cause, or contribute towards, employees’ mental health issues. Employers are therefore in a unique position to prevent such 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. 

Some forms of diagnosed mental illness, such as dementia, depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and schizophrenia, are very likely to be classed as a disability within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010.  However, it can be less clear whether an employee is disabled if they have other types of mental ill health, for example stress. Stress (which accounts for around half of all sickness absences) may amount to a disability if it causes long-term symptoms affecting an employee’s daily life (such as low mood, anxiety, inability to sleep, loss of appetite or inability to concentrate) but such symptoms are difficult to identify without medical evidence.

What can managers do to help?

The Germanwings tragedy in March 2015 (where a pilot deliberately crashed into the French Alps after hiding his mental health issues from his employer) highlights the importance of tackling employees’ mental health issues before they become a major issue.

One of the main problems is that people are often reluctant to talk openly about mental health issues because of the stigma attached or because they fear that they will be discriminated against if colleagues find out (for example, by being refused a promotion). Equally, managers are often unwilling to ask questions if they suspect that an employee may have mental health issues because they do not want to intrude into the employee’s personal life or cause offence. However, it is important to identify any issues and 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 employees’ workloads and looking out for signs that any employees are struggling;
  • holding regular review meetings with individuals to give them an opportunity to discuss any issues confidentially;
  • carrying out staff surveys to identify any recurring issues;
  • reviewing sickness absence data to identify any employees that are regularly absent on sick leave, which might indicate that there is a problem;
  • holding return to work interviews for employees returning after sickness absence and here asking each employee about the support that they think they will need going forward;
  • obtaining GP / occupational health reports;
  • 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 can employers avoid discrimination claims?

Under the Equality Act 2010, employers must not treat a disabled person less favourably than another person because they have a disability that is protected under the Act. This means that an employer must not:

  • refuse to employ someone because they have a disability;
  • subject someone to a detriment because they have a disability, for example by paying them less or offering them fewer hours of work than other members of their team, refusing to send them on a training course or failing to promote them;
  • dismiss someone because they have a disability; 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 about their start times, reducing their workload, moving their workstation to a quieter part of the office, allowing them to have a phased return to work from sickness absence, transferring them to other duties (as long as doing so does not mean subjecting them to a detriment) or reducing their 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 Chris Brazier 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. Call 01753 279029 or email employmentlaw@bpcollins.co.uk.

Stay in touch

Phone: +44 (0) 1753 889995

Email: enquiries@bpcollins.co.uk

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