Even with an emphasis on raising awareness and a move towards a more open dialogue about mental health in society, mental health can still, unfortunately, be seen as a “taboo” subject, which people may not feel comfortable talking about; especially with their employer, who they feel may treat them differently due to this revelation.
UK employers are taking steps to address mental health awareness in the workplace. In a survey undertaken of 202 UK employers by Deloitte this year, 36% offered counselling and similar services to assist in tackling issues as and when they arise, providing employees with the comfort and security of an opportunity to discuss such issues in their place of work. It has been reported that two thirds of the population at large experience mental health problems at some point in their lives, and one in almost 7 people experience mental health problems in the workplace. As such, employers should be conscious of their duty to employees in such circumstances.
Alongside the statutory duty to safeguard employees’ health and safety, there is a real practical need to address the issues surrounding Mental Health. Figures produced by the Mental Health Foundation confirm that mental health is the leading cause of sickness absence, as 70 million work days are lost each year due to mental health problems in the UK. It is therefore in an employer’s best interest to implement strategies to address the issue of mental health and its consequences on working life.
An initial step would be to understand mental health through training staff, to help to dispel some of the myths surrounding the topic. An employer can introduce a counselling service or helpline for staff, if they haven’t already, and encourage the use of positive, constructive language when speaking with staff. Employers should foster a culture of support and openness, and review its Absence Management policies/procedures to guarantee keeping-in-touch arrangements are adequate whilst an employee is absent. An employer can also consider the possibility of flexible working, and/or working from home arrangements.
The ultimate aim is to create a culture of recognition, and to reduce the feeling of stigmatisation.
Employers should also recognise that any information relating to mental health is an employee’s “sensitive personal data” and so data protection is of pivotal importance; especially in this post-GDPR climate.
The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (as amended) is also relevant to this issue. An individual will be considered disabled if “he has a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”. If an employee’s mental health issues fall within this definition, then they will be considered as having a recognised disability, and an employer is obligated to make reasonable adjustments, when and where required, facilitating an employee to continue working.
In an environment where people are encouraged to talk openly about mental health issues, employers should be actively considering whether their workplace is equipped to address same and assist its employees as and when required.
Toni Fitzgerald-Gunn is an Associate Partner specialising in employment and discrimination law in Worthingtons Commercial Solicitors, Belfast. Toni can be contacted on 02890434015 or email firstname.lastname@example.org