One in four adults experiences a mental health problem at some point in their lives, so managing mental health in the workplace should be a particular focus of any work environment. As well as helping your employees to stay well, it will reduce absences and boost productivity, so the benefits of having policies in place around mental health and wellbeing are obvious.

Mental health and the law

The law should be looked on as a limit below which you must not drop, rather than as a best-practice standard, however, it’s generally a useful place to start a discussion on any employment topic.  There are three areas of the law which are particularly pertinent to the issue of mental health in the workplace:

1.       The Equality Act 2010

Disability is included as one of the protected criteria under the Equality Act 2010 and the definition of disability references “mental impairments”.  If a mental impairment is long-term and has a substantial, adverse effect on normal day-to-day activities then it will be classed as a disability under the Equality Act.

“Long-term” means that the condition has lasted for at least 12 months or that it is likely to do so.  A “substantial adverse effect” is harder to quantify, but employers should note that while the term “substantial” sounds like it should be a high bar to jump, it is usually best to err on the side of caution.  “Normal, day-to-day activities” means what it says, however, employers should note that this criterion is set against the context of the employee’s personal situation, for example “normal, day-to-day activities” for a supermarket checkout assistant would (presumably) be very different to “normal, day-to-day activities” for a police officer.

It is also important to be aware that the Equality Act 2010 protects people who have previously had a mental impairment that fitted the criteria to be considered a disability, even if they have since ceased to experience any issues because of it.

2.       Personal injury (common law)

The definition of personal injury extends to emotional and/or mental injury, which means that, in principle, an employer can be held liable for any emotional and/or mental suffering caused by their negligence.

The practicalities of this are rather more complicated and way beyond the scope of this article, however the key point to take away is that the validity of a claim will generally depend on whether the incident that triggered the suffering could have been reasonably foreseen and, if so, whether or not the employer took reasonable steps to prevent it.

Proactively looking at ways to improve mental health in the workplace and having processes in place to support employees who do experience mental health issues can therefore go a long way towards heading off these claims.

3.       The Protection from Harassment Act 1997

In addition to being covered by the Equality Act, harassment on the grounds of mental health could also be covered under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.  It is important that staff receive training on how to treat their peers, especially when one or more of those peers is experiencing mental ill-health.

A brief note on addictions

While addiction issues themselves are not considered to be “mental impairments” under the Equality Act 2010, addictions can often be a manifestation of underlying mental health issues such as depression, which would be covered under the 2010 Act.

Employers should keep this in mind when dealing with such issues.

Mental health in the workplace – best practices

It can now be seen that the effective management of mental health in the workplace can pay huge dividends when it comes to avoiding sanctions for breaking the law.  That, as one might say, is the stick.

The carrot is that effectively managing mental health issues helps companies to build a positive brand image both amongst potential employees and amongst the public at large.  With that in mind, here are 6 points to consider when looking at managing mental health in the workplace.

1.       Addressing mental health issues starts with the recruitment process

An employer’s responsibility to avoid discrimination against those with disabilities, including mental-health issues, extends to job applicants.  This means that businesses need to ensure that all requirements made of candidates are fair, reasonable and proportionate when seen against the requirements of the actual job.

For example, if an employer was recruiting for a role where it was essential for employees to be confident using the telephone, then it could well be entirely fair, reasonable and proportionate for them to require job candidates to have a telephone interview first, before deciding whether or not to see them in person, but if an employer was recruiting for a role which did not involve significant use of a telephone then it might well be considered discriminatory to insist on a candidate being interviewed by phone in first instance if that candidate advised them that they had a mental-health issue which made it difficult for them to do so.

Similar comments apply to psychometric and skills-based tests; employers are not required to give preferential treatment to people with mental-health issues, but they are required to ensure that people with mental-health issues are not effectively excluded from certain roles because a particular bar has been set higher than is reasonably necessary for the effective performance of the job.

2.       Be proactive in expressing your support for employees experiencing mental health issues

“A stitch in time saves nine” or to put it another way, if you make it clear to your employees that you care about them and will support them if they need you to, you make it far more likely that they will tell you when they have a problem, meaning you can catch it at an early stage when problems are usually easiest to resolve (or at least contain).

3.       Promote a company culture which embraces mental wellness

Let employees see you “walking your walk” rather than just “talking your talk”.  It’s all very well to express your support for people experiencing mental health issues, but if you want your employees to take your expressions of support seriously, you need to translate words into practice.

For example, you need to make it clear that you not only do not frown on people actually taking lunch breaks but that you encourage them to do so and, likewise, that you encourage them to arrive and leave at reasonable hours.  You could arrange mindfulness or relaxation classes, and publicise helpline numbers where appropriate.

You may find that your workforce will initially be sceptical about management actively encouraging them to be at their desks less or to be open about difficulties, and it is up to you to be clear that you mean what you say and will take steps, where necessary, to make it possible for your employees to stay well.

4.       Train line managers in how to talk to people with mental-health issues

Line managers are probably going to be the people to whom their employees first turn if they want to talk about their mental health, and they are also, most frequently, the people who are in the best position to notice the (early) signs that employees may be suffering from mental-health issues.

This means that line managers need to be empowered with the skills to manage these situations and that means ensuring that they are appropriately trained and supported themselves.

5.       Put support systems in place

Support systems can take many different forms.  Sometimes, it may involve making physical adjustments to the actual workspace (for example providing gentler lighting than is found in many office environments), while at other times it could involve changing the way a task is performed (for example adjusting working times so that employees can avoid “rush hour” or early mornings).  Other support systems may involve extra support being given by appropriate members of the company (usually line managers, sometimes HR, this might be anything from increased supervision of the individual’s workload to active mentoring).

6.       Be ready to manage sickness and subsequent return to work

Mental health is like physical health.  It can vary from minor ailments to serious conditions.  Depending on the impact of the condition, employees may be able to come to work and manage their condition so they can function effectively (possibly with help) or they may need to take a break from it.

The techniques for managing such absences and subsequent returns to work are much the same as for managing absences caused by physical conditions, for example staying in touch with the employee and ensuring that they feel included and making sure that the do not overdo things upon their return.

If you already have effective processes in place for dealing with absences due to physical conditions, they may well be sufficient for dealing with absences due to mental-health issues.  If not, then now is the perfect time to reassess your workplace policies and see how they can be improved.

Reasonable accommodations

Under the Equality Act 2010, disabled people (including those with mental health problems) are entitled to ‘reasonable accommodations’ to assist them to do their jobs. This might include starting work later in the day if psychiatric medication makes it difficult to wake up, doing a gradual return to work after a period of absence, or allowing time off for medical or counselling appointments.

Look beyond what you are absolutely required to provide and, instead, look at your employees as valuable individuals who offer your company a great deal.  Go beyond the legal requirements and consider best practice guides, where you can provide a positive, enriching environment that encourages your workforce to give their very best.