Supporting mental health at work should be a no-brainer for employers!
by Tamara Barbeary & Sunny Rafaeli
Statistics reveal rise in mental health problems as a result of Covid-19.
Research has consistently shown that employee stress levels have risen in line with the demands of the twenty-first century workplace. In November 2020, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reported that the total number of cases of work-related stress, depression, or anxiety in 2019/2020 was 828,000 (51% of all work-related illnesses), a significant rise on the previous reporting period. The HSE also found that the total number of working days lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety was 17.9 million in 2019/2020 (55% of all days lost), an average of 21.6 days per case.
A recent study of over 5,000 employees carried out by research company Gartner in late 2020 has revealed that Covid-19 has caused 29% of employees to feel depressed. Of the employees interviewed, almost half (49%) who were offered a workplace wellbeing programme by their employers participated in one. However, alarmingly, only a quarter of organisations said they would keep these programmes going in the long term.
Does an employer have a legal obligation to support mental health at work?
The short answer is yes.
All employers have a common law duty to take reasonable care for the safety of their employees. The duty encompasses taking care of both an employee’s physical and mental health. In addition, the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 imposes a general duty on employers to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all their employees.
Employers are under a duty to undertake a “suitable and sufficient” assessment of the health and safety risks that employees are exposed to at work and keep it under review. This includes risks to employees’ mental health. When risks are identified, an employer should implement measures by applying the principles of prevention and provide information to employees.
If an employee’s mental health issue is considered a disability under the Equality Act 2010, an employer must not discriminate against them because of their disability and must consider making reasonable adjustments.
Aside from the law, why else should employers support mental health at work?
Supporting mental health at work can positively impact an organisation’s productivity and profitability.
Whilst cutting finances allocated to welfare programmes may be appealing to employers, particularly in the current climate, such a decision is a poor long-term investment and can cost employers substantially more in the long run.
Employees who suffer from mental health issues often need to take time off work. The Stevenson-Farmer Review of Mental Health and Employers found that this results in significant costs to employers through lost working days. When an employee suffering from poor mental health does attend work while feeling unwell (presenteeism), it can be potentially more harmful to individuals and businesses than sickness absence. The Review estimated an overall annual cost to employers is a staggering £33 billion – £43 billion. There are substantial turnover costs from recruitment and training of new employees when someone struggling with mental health leaves the organisation.
What can employers do to support mental health in the workplace?
10 TOP TIPS FOR EMPLOYERS
Tip #1: Evaluate the risks and develop solutions
- This is part of an employer’s legal duty under health and safety legislation, but it is also invaluable as the starting point to implementing a meaningful mental health support and promotion mindset.
- Securing the commitment of senior managers and ensuring that they understand the rationale and business case for supporting mental health and reducing workplace stress is vital.
- Staff surveys and focus groups may be helpful in identifying risks to mental health in a particular organisation, although this may not be proportionate in smaller organisations. The HSE has developed a questionnaire as part of its Management Standards approach which employers may find useful.
- Other data may inform an employer of work-related stress being a risk, for example by looking at sickness absences coinciding with levels of high demand, performance appraisals, grievance and disciplinary records, exit interviews, or high staff turnover in particular departments.
Tip #2: Put your employees first and the rest will fall into place
- Organisations, large or small, cannot succeed without the hard work and dedication of their employees, period.
- Wise words from Sir Richard Branson:
- Not investing in employees or failing to make them a priority may generate short term gains for a business, but for long term success putting employees first will create loyal hard-working employees that will build the business and turn it into a success.
Tip #3: Train Management to spot the signs of poor mental health at work
- It can be difficult to identify staff who are under stress, particularly when an employer might not be aware of factors external to the workplace that might be involved. Lives outside work (for example, relationship breakdown, financial worries or bereavement) can lead to stress, or they can compound pressure at work and result in stress.
- Some of the possible signs are set out below.
|Declining or inconsistent performance||Arriving late to work|
|Uncharacteristic errors||Leaving early/extended lunches|
|Loss of control over work||Absenteeism|
|Loss of motivation or commitment||Resigned attitude|
|Difficulty concentrating or making decisions||Reduced social contact|
|Lapses in memory||Elusiveness or evasiveness|
|Increased time at work||Lack of holiday planning or usage|
|Crying||Mood swings or erratic behaviour|
|Undue sensitivity||Criticism of others|
|Irritability or moodiness||Shouting|
|Over-reaction to problems||Bullying or harassment|
|Significant weight change||Poor employee relations|
|Unkempt/changes in appearance||Arguments or temper outbursts|
Tip #4: Create manageable workloads and demands
- Employers are advised to review job descriptions to ensure that they are clear and enable staff and their managers to properly understand the duties and tasks of each role.
- Employers could also review what pressures employees face and whether these pressures are appropriate in relation to their abilities and resources.
- Employers should provide employees with achievable demands in relation to agreed hours of work and job roles could be restructured to ensure that demands are reasonable and appropriate.
- Employers may also consider providing support to enable staff to manage their workloads effectively. This could be done by splitting work between staff, looking at IT solutions, or training.
Tip #5: Create a positive and supportive culture in the workplace from the top-down
- Too often, employees are scared to talk to their managers about mental health. The ACAS guidance on supporting mental health at work suggests that employers could actively promote discussions of mental health and wellbeing to create an environment where staff feel able to openly talk about mental health.
- Employers may consider developing a mental health plan or policy to outline the approach to encourage and promote good mental health. The plan can be developed collaboratively with employees. Between them, the ACAS Guide and the Stevenson-Farmer Review make the following suggestions for inclusion in an employer’s mental health plan:
- Those in senior positions could share their experiences with mental health issues and send a clear message that staff wellbeing matters and to reduce stigma. This could be communicated through initiatives such as a mental health awareness week or through all staff meetings.
- Information on mental health could be published through newsletters, emails and physical and/or online noticeboards.
- Support could also be provided through Employee Assistance Programmes or independent confidential counselling services. This will be particularly relevant for large employers who have the necessary resources to fund such programmes.
- Employers may consider revisiting their policies on sickness absence, capability, appraisal and disciplinary to ensure that they contain clauses that provide opportunities for staff to disclose any mental health problems.
Tip #6: Encourage communication
- We would advise managers to regularly speak with staff in one-to-one meetings to check how they are doing. This will provide an opportunity for staff to raise any personal information that they may not wish to share in a team meeting.
- Regular team meetings could also be organised to discuss how everyone is feeling about their workload, distribute workloads where appropriate and to encourage team members to consider their own mental health and what affects it.
- Organisations could appoint mental health ‘champions’ (nominated at board or senior leadership level) who staff can feel comfortable talking to about mental health.
Tip #7: Encourage a healthy work / life balance
- Employers may consider revisiting their organisational practices and addressing the impact that these practices may be having on employees. For example, certain working patterns may be creating an unhealthy ‘always-on’ culture. Are employees expected to review and answer emails and calls during evenings, weekends or during annual leave?
- Managers should lead by example and could provide regular reminders to encourage staff to take the breaks they are entitled to during the day and to take their annual leave.
- Employers should consider asking their employees how they measure up as an employer regarding work/life balance and what ideas they have for improvement.
- Employers may also consider introducing flexible working arrangements, such as agile/remote working, a shorter working week or later start times in order to support healthier and more productive ways of working.
Tip #8: Give staff a certain degree of autonomy and involve them in decision-making
- Giving staff control over how they approach their tasks and involving staff in workplace decisions that affect them has been shown to improve morale and productivity levels.
- Leaders could be trained on the dangers of micromanaging to ensure that they understand the difference between managing performance and holding a microscope up to every single detail. Micromanaging has been shown to kill creativity, increase stress and leave employees feeling undervalued.
- Team meetings could be used to seek their views on how the organisation might be improved and to inform them of how their suggestions have been considered and actioned.
Tip #9: Provide and encourage a meaningful career
- It is important for staff to feel valued and understand why their work is important.
- Employers may consider reviewing whether they are giving staff enough praise.
- They may also consider identifying opportunities and encouraging staff to develop their skills, through further education and training courses.
- Employers could also review and redesign job roles to create more varied responsibilities. For examples, duties could be rotated between staff working at the same grade.
Tip #10: Remember confidentiality and data protection issues
- Information about a person’s mental health is particularly sensitive and constitutes “special category data” under the UK GDPR and Data Protection Act 2018, so particular obligations apply to the processing of such data. Employers should make clear those circumstances in which employees can expect the confidentiality of that information to be respected and those where it may be necessary to share information.
- If employees are to be encouraged to seek assistance, they need to understand how information that they share will be treated. For example, an employer may use its policy on stress and mental wellbeing to indicate a primary expectation of confidentiality for information that the employee shares with mental health first aiders, mental health champions, the employer’s HR department or any support services (such as an EAP) that it provides. However, it should also clarify those circumstances in which information may need to be shared, for example where an employee is seeking adjustments (in order that these can be considered), where an employee is raising a grievance or making an allegation of bullying or harassment (in order that these may be investigated and any necessary internal proceedings undertaken), or where there is a safeguarding issue. In those circumstances the employee can be given the opportunity to agree a course of action with the employer.
- In limited circumstances, an employer may be faced with a decision as to whether to share information about an employee’s mental health with third parties, regardless of the employee’s wishes, because the employee is threatening harm to themselves or others. An employer again may use a policy to make clear that in those circumstances it will take action it considers to be appropriate in the circumstances and this may include contacting an employee’s next of kin, an occupational health provider or the emergency services.
Ultimately, if people feel that they can talk openly about mental health in the workplace, problems are less likely to build up. When issues do arise, having a clear plan in place, effective training of managers and clear communication with employees can help to resolve problems and give the support needed. This is likely to result in less time off for mental health issues, reduced employee turnover and improved morale, all of which can help organisations become more profitable.
All employers need to bear in mind the consequences of an employee being protected by the Equality Act 2010. By taking steps to manage stress and mental wellbeing at work, an employer may be able to avoid an employee developing a mental impairment or, where an employee has or develops an impairment, the employer can ensure it meets its obligations (for example, by making reasonable adjustments).
If you require assistance in relation to any of the above issues or any other employment related matter, please contact our specialist team here at Lennons.
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