Mental health – why most employers are still not doing enough

07 / 05 / 2019

If it isn’t already, mental health and well-being should be high on your agenda. Many employers have pledged their commitment to promoting positive mental health in the workplace. However, what does all this actually mean in practice and are you doing enough?

Mental health issues in the workplace

Dealing with mental health issues at work can be difficult. Employees who are suffering from mental health issues will not always come to their employer with their problem neatly labelled; indeed they might not even know that they are suffering from a mental health condition.

ACAS guidance on mental health has placed a raft of training, awareness and documentation responsibilities on employers to:

  • Develop an action plan to change attitudes;
  • Create a mental health policy setting out its values;
  • Train managers and ensure they champion awareness and fight stigma;
  • Tackle work-related causes of mental health problems; and
  • Educate the workforce.

This guidance is likely to be taken into account by an employment tribunal if things go wrong.

What can an employer do to comply with its responsibilities?

Encouraging an open dialogue around mental health is key. Awareness initiatives can be helpful here, as can the use of mental health champions and mental health first aiders. Mental health first aiders are trained to act as a first point of contact, to understand how to hold supportive conversations and how to identify the signs and symptoms for a range of mental health conditions. In light of the government’s manifesto pledge to change the law to put mental and physical first aid on an equal footing it may well become compulsory for organisations to have mental health first aiders and many businesses are training first aiders now. Mental health is a highly complex and sensitive area. Managers may feel awkward addressing the issue or may not even recognise it. This can expose a business to claims, including disability discrimination claims if the employee has a long-term mental health condition and the business fails to make adjustments to workload or performance processes, or even personal injury claims. That is why informed training is so important. Potential symptoms Management should look out for changes in behaviour – employees who are distracted, complaints of lack of sleep and tiredness, out of character behaviour such as aggression and low morale, indecisiveness in a person who is usually decisive, issues with memory and the mind going blank can all (amongst many others) be symptoms of anxiety and/or depression.

What to do if an employee is suffering from work-related stress?

The other side of the coin is that, as mental health conditions are becoming more openly talked about, it is also more and more common for employees to be signed off with mental health conditions including work-related stress. The approach to this will depend on the circumstances and may involve referral to occupational health or simply a stress risk assessment upon the employee’s return. Employers may be under an obligation to consider reasonable adjustments and failing to do so could lead to claims of disability discrimination. However, employers should not be afraid to take necessary action to manage their business – if work-related stress is cited, poor performance and absence issues can (and in many cases should) still be addressed, they just need to be carefully handled and decisions need to be fully informed. We advise businesses on managing complex mental health issues, including sickness absence, work related stress and disability discrimination. We offer training and guidance to HR, management and employees, develop action plans, and policies. We have employment lawyers who are certified Mental Health First Aiders.