A leading expert on employment law has warned that small businesses face increased complaints to tribunals if they ignore issues surrounding the mental health of employees.
Ben Doherty, a partner and head of employment law at Lindsays solicitors in Glasgow, has represented clients from a range of sectors, including charities, healthcare providers and service providers in employment tribunals across the UK.
He says small employers who do not have a human resources team are particularly vulnerable as they don’t have anyone who can take responsibility for the mental health of their staff.
The average UK-wide award from employment tribunals for cases of disability discrimination in the period 2017/18 was £30,968, with the highest amount awarded being £242,130.
Doherty said: “The main legal risk for an employer that ignores or handles mental health issues badly is of disability discrimination.
“However, some employers will also have to deal with reduced performance, poor attendance and potentially a disruptive employee before it gets to the legal stage.
“The key to reducing the risk is communication – being able to treat everybody like an individual and listen to their problems and then try to help reduce whatever problems that causes them at work.”
There were 383 cases of disability discrimination in 2018, up from 328 in the previous year. According to the Scottish Association for Mental Health, every year one in four people in Scotland will experience a mental health problem.
Health and Safety Executive statistics show work-related stress accounts for 37 per cent of all ill health cases and 45 per cent of all working days lost due to ill health.
Doherty said: “Large employers have dedicated HR professionals working for them, they get training, they may have mental health first aiders and employee assistance programmes that they can make available. The employees may be able to get some form of counselling, but if you’re a small employer you don’t know that kind of stuff exists. You might think ‘what’s a mental health first aider?’ purely out of lack of knowledge and most of the smaller employers won’t have an HR department.
“It’s unusual for an employer who has less than 50 employees to have anyone in HR – it’s a function that tends to sit with the office manager or if they’re slightly bigger it may come down to the financial director. A lot of people have their day job to do and multiple roles.”
Doherty said there were knock-on effects from not looking after employees, one is about productivity and staff turnover “that flows from not looking after your staff properly”.
He added: “As a lawyer I would tell employers to take advice early and the wider point is don’t ignore it, don’t be afraid to talk about mental health at work. There are people they can talk to for advice, whether it be people like me or Acas and other online resources where they can go for help and guidance.”