November 24, 2021

Mental health in the workplace: the evolving challenge

Supporting mental health in the workplace is likely to be one of the key challenges facing employers, HR directors and managers over the next 12 months and beyond.

The unprecedented impact of lockdowns, remote working, financial uncertainty, childcare pressures, and social isolation will inevitably spill over into the workplace for some time. While some stress can be positive and help people to achieve at work, too much stress can be overwhelming and develop into a more serious issue.

Can a mental impairment be a disability?

In a word, yes. We have now seen numerous cases in the Employment Tribunal where an employee with a mental health condition is considered to be disabled for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010. Basically any mental impairment that has a 'substantial' and 'long term' negative effect on a person's ability to do normal daily activities could be a 'disability'.

Employers therefore need to be alive to the duties placed on them, such as making reasonable adjustments for disabled employees, which could mean adjusted working hours or additional time off for counselling appointments.

What are the key messages for employers?

Looking after mental health has traditionally been seen as crucial in the context of workforce productivity. That remains a priority; however, employers should also see their mental health support offering in the context of keeping their organisation an attractive place to work for new recruits (and existing staff), and preventing - or at least reducing -  the risk of discrimination or harassment claims based on disability.

Training remains key. Employers need to commit to training to help staff understand what support is available to them, as well as to reduce inappropriate banter and instead foster a more inclusive and caring working culture. People managers at all levels should aim to identify and support employees who are struggling at an early juncture – "as individuals and as managers of others, we need a fundamental understanding of the symptoms, causes and the signs of stress, so we can take recognise it in ourselves and our teams, and take appropriate action" (Tim Thurston, TeamDoctor).

Employers should also consider implementing a Wellness Action Plan, which allows individuals to reflect on their stresses and how these can be managed. Signposting staff to an Employee Assistance Programme (if there is one) is also helpful, as many employees take comfort from the confidentiality of this type of resource. Finally, talking to employees is invaluable – managers should work towards being comfortable to ask their colleagues how they are really feeling, in order to properly facilitate the mental wellbeing of their workforce.

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