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Mental Health Awareness Week: how you can support your employees

Posted: 19/05/2023

To mark Mental Health Awareness Week, this article considers what employers can do to support employees who may be struggling with their mental health, as well as promote good practices relating to mental health at work.

What impact does mental health have on the workplace? 

This year, the focus of Mental Health Awareness Week is on anxiety, with a recent study finding that 34% of adults surveyed have recently experienced anxiety and 29% are feeling stressed. 

Inevitably, mental health issues can have a detrimental impact on the workplace, including reduced productivity and performance, increased sickness absence and a higher turnover of staff. In fact, mental health issues have been estimated to cost the UK economy £117.9 billion annually. However, it is likely that the true cost is even higher as the estimate does not account for so-called ‘presenteeism’ – where employees show up for work but do not perform effectively due to ill health. 

In light of this, the work environment is an important place in which employers can identify employees that are facing mental health issues and take appropriate and timely action to support them. 

What does the law say? 

Employers owe a duty of care to employees and must reasonably ensure their health, safety and welfare. This duty applies to both physical and mental health conditions. 

The Equality Act 2010 defines a disability as a ‘physical or mental impairment’ which has a ‘substantial and long-term adverse effect’ on a person’s ability to carry out their ‘normal day-to-day activities’. This could include, for example, interacting with colleagues, the length of time taken to complete work or, perhaps, working within specified times.  

If an employee is disabled, their employer must make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for their disability or risk facing liability for a disability discrimination claim. Mental health issues will not always amount to a disability as defined in the act (although of course they may do) and left untreated they may be more likely to deteriorate into a more serious condition. Employers should therefore be wary of ignoring any signs of mental health issues among their workforce. 

Whilst there is currently no statutory guidance on the support that an employer must provide to employees relating to mental health, in April 2023 the Acas guide to reasonable adjustments for mental health was released. The guide advises that employers should try to make reasonable adjustments for mental health, even if the affected employee is not suffering from a disability as per the definition under the act. Although this goes further than the statutory requirement, Acas notes that ‘often, simple changes to a person’s working arrangements or responsibilities could be enough to help them stay in work and work well’.

What can employers do? 

Although this will depend on the situation, steps that employers could take to create a positive workplace environment to support employees who are facing mental health issues include:

  • being sensitive to an employee’s change in performance and considering whether this could be related to a mental health issue;
  • arranging regular meetings with employees (eg one-to-one catch ups, appraisals) and considering whether these should take place in person or virtually;
  • providing regular training for managers to spot the impact of mental health issues;
  • drafting policies and procedures with mental health issues in mind; and
  • considering providing support for mental health issues (eg mental health first aiders, employee assistance programmes, external support helplines etc) and ensuring employees are aware of this support.

Ultimately, each case/person is different, and there can be no one-size-fits-all approach to mental health issues. While some employees will welcome the support offered, others may be uncomfortable in admitting to or discussing their mental health issues, or may not acknowledge that there is an issue. 

However, employers who maintain an open dialogue with staff at all levels of the organisation ensure that management are trained to identify and deal with mental health issues, and who provide access to support, will be in the best place to support their employees. 

For further information on how these issues might affect your organisation, please contact Paul Mander.

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