Mental health in the workplace – what employers can do

After a year where everyone has had their awareness of mental health raised to new levels, we are now starting to understand just how important the mental well-being of workers is and how much it can impact the efficiency (and reputation) of your business.  

As an employer, you have a legal obligation to ensure your team is physically safe in the workplace, known as your ‘duty of care’. But does that duty expand to the mental safety of your workforce as well? Our guide to mental health in the workplace and what employers can do is here to help. 

What mental health issues could your team face? 

Top of the list has to be stress. It’s the number-one issue cited by workers and although not always classified as a medical condition, it can be incredibly debilitating, sometimes to the point of having a serious impact on mental and physical health. Certain levels of stress are productive and a positive influence, but the line between ‘good’ stress and ‘bad’ stress is very fine, as well as being different for each individual. 

Other problems that can be part of the workplace are anxiety and depression. Anxiety can be brought on by tight deadlines, pressure to perform, or even workplace bullying. Depression is a serious condition that can in extreme circumstances be life-threatening if the sufferer reaches the point of self-harm or even contemplating suicide.  

It’s important that everyone understands what the warning signs for these common conditions are, and how to spot them and react to them before they become a major issue. 

More serious conditions, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are often controlled through medication. If you have employees with these or other medical conditions then you need to be aware of the potential triggers that could cause a relapse.  

The legal responsibilities of employers 

The law in the UK states that employers have a duty of care to their workers, which means that they have to support their health, safety and well-being. This includes making sure the workplace is a safe one, protecting staff from discrimination, and carrying out regular risk assessments, particularly if there is a change in the working environment.  

Discrimination against someone with a mental health issue can be considered to be a legal issue if the actions or comments of others have a ‘substantial adverse affect’ on the life of an employee and affects their ability to carry out normal day to day activities. It can also be considered a serious issue if the discrimination carries on for a prolonged period. 

Mental health issues are as much a disability as a physical issue, even if the symptoms are not always obvious or the sufferer has the occasional ‘good day’. So it is up to the employer to make sure the individual does not feel discriminated against on the grounds of a mental health issue. To do so could certainly be considered as discriminatory, and result in an employment tribunal that could be costly financially, as well as potentially damaging to the reputation of the business and the employer. 

How to make the workplace more supportive 

Sometimes, it’s the little things that make a huge difference to those who suffer from mental health issues. Providing workers who suffer from anxiety a ‘safe place’ that’s quiet and away from the normal hustle and bustle of the workplace may be all they need to take a few minutes to get a panic or anxiety attack under control.  

Helping them to feel that they are not being singled out because of their mental health issues is crucial, so it’s extremely important to stamp out bullying or harassment of any kind in the workplace straight away. People with mental health issues often feel isolated and unable to talk about their issues, so simply supporting without judgement is vital to make them feel part of the team once again.  

Working with them to help them prioritise their workload can lead to a more productive and happier working environment for everyone, including those suffering from mental health issues.  

Working from home – do your responsibilities extend to homeworkers? 

The Covid-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the way a lot of people work, with far more employees now working from home on a regular basis. As an employer, you are still responsible for the well-being of your staff when they’re working, even if they’re not on site. Bear in mind that while working from home is an ideal situation for some, others may feel isolated and detached from their work colleagues. This isolation in turn can lead to stress, loneliness and anxiety. So if you do have team members working from home ensure that they have the contact they need to stay mentally healthy and happy. 

What happens if there’s an accusation of discrimination on mental health issues? 

Any accusation of discrimination is serious, so it’s important to treat it with the severity it demands. The first thing to do is to ensure there is an open dialogue between the worker and yourself, and that they feel confident enough to explain to you exactly how they are feeling and why. There should be no fear of repercussions or reprisals.  

If the matter cannot be handled internally then talking through a mediator such as ACAS or an employment law expert may help.  

If this still doesn’t resolve the problem then the only course of action may be a tribunal. If that happens then it’s essential to talk to one of our experienced and highly qualified employment law solicitors straight away.