As an issue, mental health has rightly gained greater prominence, highlighted by public figures such as Prince Harry sharing their own experiences. Last week, athlete David Weir won his seventh London Marathon despite battling depression and admitting: “The last four months have been hell.”
As mental health becomes more openly talked about and recognised as an issue, it’s more apparent it cannot be neglected in the workplace. One in six employees is dealing with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety or stress according to the Health Education Authority. These were the top reasons for sickness absence in the UK with an estimated 17 million working says lost due to mental health illness in 2015 (ONS). For employers, there are real challenges when dealing with mental health, compounded by a lack of skill and confidence in recognising and understanding the issues. Helpfully, the stigma attached to mental health is lessening through better understanding, but there is still some distance to travel. To make further progress, employers can educate themselves on mental health and get HR and management teams to engage actively in the debate. The See Me campaign is a great place to start your education into mental health. The Health and Safety Executive has also developed valuable resources and best practice in this area.
Historically, stigma could arise as mental illness was accompanied by few, if any, obvious physical symptoms. Culture has also been an issue as staff avoided being seen as flawed or weak, especially in traditionally “macho” working environments. This lack of visibility remains a struggle for many in management. How do we know someone has poor mental health if we cannot see it? Yet the signs, though often subtle, are there. Tiredness, inattention, lack of personal care, irritability or just a change in what would otherwise be normal performance or behaviour. Abuse of alcohol or drugs can also be an indicator of an underlying issue.
A CIPD study found stress is now the major cause of long-term absence in manual and non-manual workers. Many employers now conduct stress questionnaires to monitor staff wellbeing and highlight trigger points within their organisation to be addressed more widely to improve their organisation’s mental health profile. Physically demanding and hazardous jobs, such as operating heavy machinery or working at height require risk assessments to minimise risk to physical health. A similar approach should be taken for occupations involving high levels of stress and consequent risk for mental health.
Mental illness if profound or long term enough can also be a disability under the Equality Act 2010.
In a recent case, we advised an employer who had a highly-skilled employee who developed anxiety and agoraphobia. By allowing the employee to work from home for a period, that allowed her to remain at work, productive and eventually, building enough confidence to attend the workplace more often over time with the support of a companion through the Government’s Access to Work Scheme.
The key points for employers addressing mental health in the workplace are to acknowledge it, understand it, train managers to deal with it and foster a mentally-healthy working environment.
Chris Phillips is a Partner, Loch Employment Law