Managing mental health in the workplace – new Acas Guidance
23 / 08 / 2023
According to the World Health Organisation, mental health issues affect almost 15% of people in the workplace. Globally, an estimated 12 billion working days are lost every year to depression and anxiety.
Acas has released two new pieces of guidance: (1) reasonable adjustments for mental health and (2) managing work-related stress. Whilst only guidance, Employment Tribunals are likely to use them as a benchmark for best practice in assessing whether an employer has acted reasonably and fairly in the circumstances; employers should therefore pay careful attention.
Under the Equality Act 2010, there is a duty to make reasonable adjustments where a person with a disability is placed at a substantial disadvantage, compared with people who are not disabled, by:
- an employer’s provision, criterion or practice; or
- a physical feature of the workplace.
Reasonable adjustments are changes that an employer makes to alleviate or minimise that substantial disadvantage.
Mental health conditions canamount to a disability where the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on an individual’s ability to carry out their day-to-day activities. Examples of mental health impairments that may qualify as a disability include depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, bipolar disorder, ADHD and OCD.
What is “reasonable” will depend on several factors, including: whether the adjustment is practicable, the financial and other costs of making the adjustment, and the size and financial resources available to the employer. Crucially, the duty to make reasonable adjustments applies whether or not a disabled employee requests them.
What does the guidance say?
This is the first time that Acas has published specific guidance on making reasonable adjustments for employees with mental health conditions.
The guidance provides some useful examples of reasonable adjustments, including:
- Making changes to an employee’s roles and responsibilities – such as removing particularly stressful tasks or deadlines, or breaking down work into short-term tasks.
- Reviewing working relationships and communication styles – such as agreeing a preferred communication method and ensuring the employee is dealing with trusted colleagues.
- Changing the employee’s physical working environment – such as providing reserved parking to reduce the stress of commuting or relocating someone’s workspace to a quieter area to reduce sensory demands.
- Making changes to policies – such as offering an extended phased return to work.
- Providing additional support to employees – such as having regular check-ins, providing a dedicated mentor, or providing coaching to build confidence in the skills relevant to the employee’s role.
It also links to some case studies which highlight how other organisations have successfully used reasonable adjustments to support their staff.
The guidance is practical, thoughtful and easy to follow. The key takeaways are:
- Take as much care with mental health as you do with physical illnesses.
- Do not define “disability” too narrowly – whilst the legal duty to make reasonable adjustments only arises for those with a disability, it is open to employers to make adjustments to meet the needs of any employee.
- Employers and employees should work together to agree and review reasonable adjustments.
- Employers should set up a meeting to discuss the content of any medical advice from occupational health and explore any adjustments the employee thinks would be helpful and how they could work in practice. After the meeting, the employer should confirm what was agreed in writing.
- Be flexible – every job and every person is different. Reasonable adjustments that work for one individual will not necessarily work for another. Similarly, what works for an employee at one point in time might not work for them always.
- Keep adjustments under review – hold regular follow up meetings to discuss how the adjustment is working for both parties. These meetings could be weekly, monthly or less frequently.
- Managers should be proactive, regularly check in with their employees, and look out for changes in behaviour. It is therefore essential that managers receive appropriate training to recognise mental health issues, and know how to support those who experience them.
- Employers should make sure that they have a policy in place which specifically addresses reasonable adjustments for mental health. The policy should make it clear how adjustments can be accessed and how managers will deal with such requests. It can also signpost other sources of support, such as employee assistance programmes or mental health officers, and outline the organisation’s overall wellbeing strategy.
Managing work-related stress
The guidance is split into four sections and can be summarised as follows:
- Cause and signs of stress
If poorly managed, stress can cause burnout, anxiety and depression. It can also increase the risk of experiencing severe physical illnesses.
There are many factors that can cause stress at work, including bullying or conflicting work demands. Employers should also be aware of any factors outside of work that might contribute to an employee experiencing stress.
- Understanding the law on work-related stress
There are two main pieces of relevant legislation:
- The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 – which imposes a “duty of care” on employers to protect their employees from the risk of stress at work; and
- The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 – which requires all employers to make a “suitable and sufficient assessment” of the risks to the health and safety of their employees at work.
If an employee has mentioned that they are experiencing stress at work, individual risk assessments should also be conducted.
- Supporting employees with work-related stress
Managers should be “sensitive and supportive” when talking to staff about work-related stress. This may involve signposting any internal or external specialist help. It is important to balance the need for regular contact so as to prevent isolation and provide support, with the need to avoid overwhelming the employee.
Employers must be clear about confidentiality. They should reassure employees that they will not share information shares in confidence, but that in some circumstances there might be a reason why they are required to do so.
If an employee takes time off, it may be a good idea to hold a return to work meeting to discuss any work updates and see if the employee needs any further support. It is important to talk about any adjustments that might help the employee manage work-related stress (for example flexible working hours, or helping them prioritise their workload).
- Preventing work-related stress
There are steps that both employers and employees can take to help prevent work-related stress. For example, employers are advised to have clear policies on stress and mental health, encourage their employees to raise concerns, provide training to managers as to how best to deal with work-related stress and promote a work-life balance. Similarly, employees should raise awareness of issues that may be causing them stress at work, ask for help, and make use of any training and support offered by their organisation.
There are some common themes across the two sets of guidance. Acas has reiterated that mental health is experienced by each individual differently, and that their experiences may also differ over time. Employers should bear this in mind. It is also crucial for employers and employees to work together to tackle these issues.
If you have questions about the new guidance, please do get in touch with a member of the Employment Team.