Deborah Warren: Supporting employees’ mental health in the workplace

employee mental healthEmployers have not only recognised the importance of employee wellbeing and mental health, but have begun to put it at the top of their people priorities list.

All employers have a general, common-law duty to take reasonable care for the safety of their employees, including providing a safe place of work, safe tools and equipment, and a safe system of working. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 also imposes a general duty on employers to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all their employees. This extends to mental health and taking reasonable steps to prevent and manage work-related stress.

Mental health conditions may be considered a disability under the Equality Act 2010 if the condition or symptoms have a long term, adverse impact upon an employee’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. Where this is the case, employers will be under a duty to make reasonable adjustments to alleviate any potential barriers faced by the employee as a result.

There are more resources, options and guidance than ever before to assist employers in managing and addressing mental health in the workplace, but equally it is still only beginning to become less of a taboo subject and, as awareness increases, that can come with increased scrutiny and criticism. Employers may feel that it is difficult to get it right and that they may be opening themselves up to claims of discrimination.

Employers should not be afraid to address mental health challenges in their workforce. But they do need to be aware of changes to guidelines and legislation, make use of the resources and advice available to them and be ready to adapt their approach, rather than seek to adopt a one-size-fits-all or tick-box solution.

What works best will depend upon different factors such as the size of the organisation, the resources available, the type of work it does, and its employee demographics. Employers should seek feedback from employees on what will make an impact.

Clear policies and adequate training are a must. Employers could consider implementing employee assistance programmes, counselling, private health insurance and occupational health referrals. There are also mental health plans, mental health champions, mental health first aiders, and mentoring or buddy systems. Coffee mornings or events to encourage openness around mental health can also prove effective.

Preventative measures are absolutely key. As well as training, policies and other benefits, employers can also consider implementing mental health risk assessments, return-to-work interviews and one-to-one meetings to help monitor mental health and wellbeing, to spot problems and provide tailored support depending on the condition and cause.

A lot can be achieved by encouraging conversations about mental health and stress, raising awareness and encouraging employees to think about how they can best look after their own mental health too. Straightforward employment law considerations such as ensuring employees take holiday and breaks, dealing with concerns and conflicts quickly and transparently also play their part. Employers should demonstrate an inclusive environment which supports mental wellbeing and those with more complex mental health needs.

Benefits for employers include higher levels of staff retention, engagement, skill sharing, and new ways of thinking and learning. In turn, this will trickle down to the workforce, helping to carve a more honest workplace culture in which the employee trusts the employer enough to share their concerns and in which the employer provides a supporting culture.

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Ultimately, beyond interventions, the key is to foster a relationship based on trust in which adult, open conversation can take place about people’s lives, health, and also the needs of the business.

Deborah Warren is legal director, employment and business immigration at Clarion Solicitors