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Protecting Mental Health and Wellbeing in the Workplace: The Risks, Challenges and Opportunities for Employers

This week marks Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK, with ‘loneliness’ being chosen as the theme for this year. In this alert, Partner Emma Bartlett explores the impact of mental health in the workplace, specifically, what employers can and should be doing to promote a culture that supports staff and enables the business to thrive whilst also meeting their legal and regulatory obligations.

Whilst it is easy to draw a clear link between loneliness and the effects which the global pandemic of the last 2 years has had on individuals, and indeed such a link is highly relevant, the Mental Health Foundation has sought to draw a distinction between loneliness and social isolation. Noting that one in four adults feel lonely some or all of the time, the Foundation is seeking to dispel the stereotypes surrounding individuals who experience loneliness and empower people to “tackle the epidemic” of loneliness.

In circumstances where loneliness is both a key contributor to and a result of poor mental health, it is unsurprising that recent polling by the Foundation has found that the public felt that loneliness was a leading issue that needed to be focussed on.

Mental Health and the Workplace

Quite aside from the desire employers may have to support and assist employees suffering from poor mental health on a purely empathetic level, the reality is that the potential costs to employers in failing to adequately address poor mental health in the workplace cannot be overstated. This can encompass litigation costs, the associated reputational damage, the loss of diversity and skills in their business, and the purely financial impact of failing to address this issue by creating the appropriate workplace environment.

In 2017, Thriving at Work: The Stevenson/Farmer Review of Mental Health and Employers (Review) was published; an independent review into how employers could better support the mental health of all employees. To achieve this, the Review recommends two sets of standards, one being the “mental health core standards” which all employers should adhere to, irrespective of their size or sector, and the “mental health enhanced standards” which should be implemented by larger employers and the public sector in addition to the core standards.

The mental health core standards are as follows:

  • Produce, implement and communicate a mental health at work plan
  • Develop mental health awareness among employees
  • Encourage open conversations about mental health and the support available when employees are struggling
  • Provide employees with good working conditions and ensure they have a healthy work-life balance and opportunities for development
  • Promote effective people management through line managers and supervisors
  • Routinely monitor employee mental health and wellbeing

Analysis carried out by Deloitte as part of the Review found that poor mental health costs UK employers between £33 billion and £42 billion annually, taking into account the costs of absenteeism, presenteeism and staff turnover. Encouragingly, the same analysis found that the return on investment of workplace mental health interventions was extremely significant, with an average ROI of 4:1. Updated research conducted in early 2020 concluded that the cost to employers had risen with ‘leaveism’, the increasing tendency for individuals to feel unable to ‘switch off’ from work, being a significant contributing factor in employee burnout.

The fact that this topic was identified as being so significant at that time seems almost prophetic in light of the subsequent pandemic, and the sudden and severe impact of homeworking on the mental health of employees.  One positive consequence of this may be the fact that as homeworking and, latterly, hybrid working have significantly impacted such a large proportion of the population, people have become more confident in recognising and speaking up about key issues such as work-life balance and positive workplace cultures.

The prevalence of poor mental health in the legal industry, in particular, has long been acknowledged but, in recent years, has been the subject of heightened scrutiny, increased research and loud calls for action and reform from industry peer groups. It is little wonder, therefore, that The Law Society President, I. Stephanie Boyce, marked the start of Mental Health Awareness Week by urging the legal profession to “take stock of its culture” and acknowledge their “collective responsibility” to improve the working environment. Boyce’s comments align with the stance taken by the Foundation, that mental health is an issue that everyone, including employers, can work to improve.

Workplace culture is a topic that is also firmly at the forefront of the SRA’s agenda as of late, following the recent publication of their guidance on workplace environments, which acknowledged the impact that unsupportive or toxic workplace environments can have on the wellbeing and mental health of a firm’s staff. If a further incentive was needed for employers to carefully consider what they can do to support mental health in the workplace, the threat of regulatory ramifications will undoubtedly be present.

Whilst such regulatory oversight is welcome, we should not lose sight of the fact that improving mental health should be a proactive and supportive endeavour, a journey which employers are keen to embark on in recognition of the benefits it will bring to their staff and, in turn, to their businesses.

What can Employers do?

In a week where the interrelated issues of mental health and loneliness are being carefully considered against the backdrop of a seismic shift in the way we work, it is an opportune time for employers to consider what actions they can and should take to assist their workforce to combat loneliness and isolation at work.

The Marmalade Trust, a charity dedicated to helping those who are experiencing loneliness, has a wide variety of helpful and practical solutions for how employees and employers can collectively build more connected workplaces. Such suggestions include:

  • Employers should prioritise connection in their onboarding process, acknowledging that everyone has varying social needs. New employees can be made to feel comfortable and a part of the company culture by being asked what level of social contact they prefer at work, and what communication platforms they feel most comfortable using. At the same time, employees are encouraged to not always default to technology, for example by relying on email as a substitute for interacting with people in person.
  • Employers are encouraged to prioritise social time at work, by promoting downtime and leading by example. A culture of open dialogue where employees are asked what kind of social events they would like to participate in, again acknowledging that individuals have different preferences, is more likely to increase participation in such events.

As obvious as it may seem, it is vital that a genuine and concerted effort is made to reduce the stigma around loneliness. Measures that may be taken by employers include providing training to managers, opening up the conversation on wellbeing in the workplace generally, and appointing dedicated mental health first aiders in the workplace.

If you are a multinational employer or HR advisor and would like to discuss updating your firm’s policies and procedures, how we may be able to provide tailored training in this area, or for any other questions arising from this alert, please contact our Partner, Emma Bartlett, who specialises in employment and partnership issues for multinational employers, senior executives, partnerships and partners.