10 October 2023 is Mental Health Day. To mark the event, Ethan Jayne and Katy Parkinson from our employment law team highlight the reasons why supporting your employees’ mental wellbeing is important and what guidance is available to assist you.
On Mental Health Awareness Day, the Mental Health Foundation, the UK’s leading charity for mental health, aims to promote awareness of mental health issues and ways in which everyone can improve their mental wellbeing.
During the COVID-19 pandemic a large proportion of the UK workforce began to work from home, and for many the arrangement has continued. While this has been beneficial to many employees, the rise in hybrid and remote working, combined with the current cost of living crisis, has intensified feelings of loneliness and anxiety for many people. This is one example why employers have an important role to play in supporting mental wellbeing for their workforce.
In addition, a recent Forbes article highlighted that for 69 per cent of employees, their line manager has a greater impact on their mental health than their therapist or their doctor, and an equal impact as their partner. This statistic demonstrates the significant importance of a line manager’s approach to dealing with an employee’s mental wellbeing, and to train line managers to handle such matters sensitively and appropriately.
Why it is important to support your employees’ mental wellbeing
There are several key reasons why it is important to support your employees’ mental health. Firstly, employees with a positive mental health outlook will generally be more productive at work. In addition, fostering a positive and open culture where mental wellbeing is supported and talked about openly will assist in attracting and retaining talented employees.
From a legal perspective, mental health conditions may be deemed a disability for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010. Failing to support an employee’s mental wellbeing can have serious ramifications for businesses by giving rise to complaints, grievances and claims in the Employment Tribunal.
In addition to the management time spent defending claims and the associated legal costs, the 2020/21 annual award statistics for the Employment Tribunal show that the highest award made against an employer for disability discrimination was an eye-watering £225,893 and the average award was around £26,000.
How to recognise that an employee may be struggling with mental health
ACAS has recently published guidance outlining possible signs that an employee may be suffering with mental health issues. It is important not to make assumptions about people’s wellbeing, but some of the possible signs are:
- The employee appears more tired, anxious, or withdrawn.
- There is an increase in sickness absence or being late to work.
- There are changes in the standard of work or ability to focus on tasks.
- The employee is less interested in tasks they previously enjoyed.
- There are noticeable changes in the employee’s usual behaviour, mood or how they behave towards the people they work with.
These possible signs can be even more difficult to spot when an employee works remotely or a combination of working from home and in the workplace. Line managers should ensure there are regular opportunities to touch base with employees, both via informal catch ups and more formal one-to-ones, to provide the opportunity to talk confidentially but openly about their wellbeing and explore what support can be put in place if the employee is struggling.
If you suspect that an employee is struggling with their mental health, sensitive and appropriate management of the immediate situation is vital. It is therefore important that businesses equip their line managers with the skills to be able to do this.
Employees should also be signposted to the support functions available to them. This could include access to mental health helplines and mental health first aiders employed by the company and the offer of health cash plans to claim money back for any related medical expenses.
Making reasonable adjustments
The Equality Act imposes a duty on employers to make reasonable adjustments to premises or working practices to help disabled job applicants, workers, employees and contract workers.
Recent ACAS guidance defines reasonable adjustments as “changes an employer makes to remove or reduce a disadvantage related to someone’s disability”, which is a useful way for employers to contextualise their obligations. Even where no legal duty arises, an employer should still consider what adjustments could be made to support an employee who is struggling with mental health matters.
When discussing reasonable adjustments with an employee, it is important to ensure that the proposed adjustments are specific to their role and to them as an individual.
Also, as an employee’s mental health can fluctuate, a good line of communication between employer and employee and regular reviews will help to ensure the right adjustments are put in place, both at the outset and as the situation progresses.
ACAS has provided the following examples of reasonable adjustments which may be appropriate for assisting employees who are experiencing difficulties with their mental health:
- Changes to the physical working environment, such as relocating someone’s workspace to a quieter area to reduce sensory demands, or permitting someone to work from home to enable them to better manage distractions, or give them more time to engage in activities that allow them to better manage their mental health.
- Changes to someone’s working arrangements, for example:
- review tasks or deadlines to reduce or spread their workload to enable a focus on improving their mental health.
- break work down into short tasks to reduce the complexity of work and provide a more structured working day.
- review responsibilities and reduce those that are more stressful.
- Finding a different way to do something, such as agreeing a preferred communication method for a period of time – for example by avoiding spontaneous phone calls or putting management instructions in writing via email.
- Adapting the way policies are applied, for example offering an extended phased return to work to support someone who has been absent from your business due to mental health issues, to build up their hours and what is expected from them gradually, to support their recovery.
There are further examples and explanations on ACAS’s website. Additionally, occupational health professionals can advise on tailored reasonable adjustments on a case-by-case basis.
Dealing with issues surrounding mental health and wellbeing can be daunting for all involved, and our team regularly advises employers faced with complex scenarios. It is vital that employers equip their line managers with the skills to be able to manage situations that arise, and that legal advice is sought at the outset before matters become problematic.
Harrison Drury’s HR and employment law team can offer line manager training workshops and assist with policies and advice in this area. Our team can be contacted on 01772 258321 or by email email@example.com.