Julianna Barker: What are an employer’s legal responsibilities around mental health?

A healthy workforce increases a business’ performance, productivity and profitability and can help an employer retain staff. However, employers also have legal obligations to look after employees’ mental health. The following is a summary of an employer’s main responsibilities.

There is a common law duty of care on all employers for the safety of their employees. Specifically, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 imposes an overarching duty on employers to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of all employees, with further duties imposed by the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, including to undertake risk assessments.

Under the Equality Act 2010, some mental health impairments are capable of being defined as a disability. If so, employers have a legal duty to not discriminate on these grounds and a positive requirement to make reasonable adjustments in the workplace, with the purpose of removing barriers to work and ensuring that any individual with a disability is not placed at a detriment in the workplace.  Protection under the Equality Act also extends to those associated with a disabled person and those who are wrongly perceived to be disabled. If an employee successfully shows that their employer has discriminated against them, there is potentially no limit on the amount of compensation that a tribunal can award.

An employer also has legal obligations when deciding to terminate the employment of someone with a mental illness. If not handled carefully, the employee may have claims for unfair dismissal and discrimination. In addition, if an employer mishandles an employee’s mental health issue and the employee resigns as a result, they may also be able to pursue a constructive dismissal claim.

Therefore, as well as making business sense, supporting the mental health of employees is also essential for employers to avoid potential liability. Promoting a mental health-friendly culture and providing manager training should form part of any employers’ approach.

Julianna Barker is apprentice legal executive at law firm Stone King

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