The issue of employee mental health is rising rapidly up the agenda for employers. Effective management can encourage a healthy and congenial workplace, which in turn can increase productivity and performance. Mental health is complex. Although issues can be just as debilitating for a sufferer as physical conditions, they are not always visible. The difficulty for employers is how they tackle something which can be so difficult to identify (and by its very nature can sometimes cause the sufferer to seek to hide it). The causes of mental health issues are not always work-related, and an employer may not be able to prevent all possible causes of ill health, but steps can be taken to reduce work-related stress. To that end, managers should be speaking with their employees regularly (regardless of whether they suspect a mental health issue) to find out what can be done to make their lives easier – and importantly the managers should be willing to listen and be accommodating, to the extent possible. A business’ culture and practices (including working hours) should promote openness and treat mental health and wellbeing as a priority, and this should be reflected in work policies. It is crucial, however, for businesses to ‘walk the walk’ and not simply have policies in place which are not effectively implemented. Employers should be especially mindful where an employee’s mental health issues may be sufficiently severe as to amount to a disability under the Equality Act 2010. In such cases, an employer should take professional advice and consider what reasonable adjustments it can make to help the employee perform their duties without being placed at a disadvantage. Think laterally about adjustments; it is unlikely to be as simple as reducing the workload. We’ve even seen examples where workload reductions create detrimental effects as it can make the individual feel unvalued. It is important to try to engage with the individual in a sympathetic manner to find out what they or their treating medical practitioner thinks might help.
Be proactive – prevention is easier than cure. Encourage staff to develop their own Wellness Action Plans – these can be used to identify triggers, symptoms, warning signs, how it may impact on performance, what support they may need from the business. Offer training to managers and business leaders to help them identify and manage mental health issues. Consider seeking guidance from HR, senior management or occupational health. Take professional advice – don’t guess. Consider whether reasonable adjustments might be necessary in order to allow the employee to carry out their job without being at a disadvantage. Consider implementing an employee assistance programme, a mentoring system, a well-being or mental health policy. Remember, no one-size fits all and each case should be treated individually.
By exercising an employer’s duty of care to its employees and showing the organisation to be responsible, wellbeing will be pushed up the agenda, and this should ultimately reduce the potential costs to the business of mental-health related absence and disability discrimination claims. Nick Hawkins is an associate and Naomi Latham a trainee solicitor at CM Murray
This article was written by Senior Associate Nick Hawkins and Trainee Solicitor Naomi Latham, and was first published in Financial Accountant, the official magazine for the Institute of Financial Accountants.