Why mental health matters to employers

Jane Hannon explains what HR professionals can do to best ensure the wellbeing of their workforce – and the potential legal pitfalls if they don’t

The impact of mental ill-health in the workplace has been recognised and addressed increasingly over recent years. However, statistics suggest that stress at work remains a growing problem. According to the TUC, in the UK around 15.4 million working days each year are lost to stress, depression or anxiety, accounting for 57 per cent of all absences. Meanwhile, the Stevenson/Farmer Thriving at work review, commissioned by the government, reported that poor mental health costs UK employers between £33bn and £42bn a year.

As well as the financial costs, the adverse business effects of mental ill-health include employee absence, staff turnover, loss of skills, and legal and reputational risks. All of this makes it an issue worth tackling.

An important aspect of any employer’s strategy is a positive approach that seeks to promote and maintain good employee mental health and to prevent problems arising. Many businesses now use workplace wellbeing programmes, spearheaded by those at the top of the organisation, to ensure openness and transparency around mental health. These programmes provide prevention and intervention tools for use by the business, as well as training and assistance to managers on handling workplace mental health. The success of these initiatives is demonstrable and, according to Thriving at work, the return on investment of workplace mental health interventions is “overwhelmingly positive”.

At the same time as using a proactive approach aimed at support and prevention, it is important for employers to ensure that the organisation’s culture does not shift so far that managers feel unable to tackle situations where mental ill-health is at play. Numerous tricky scenarios can arise, for example:

Employee absence

Absence related to mental health can be long term, or it may be short term and intermittent. Ultimately, both these types of absence can provide grounds for dismissal. However, when managing any type of absence, an employer should ensure that their procedure is watertight and conducted in a manner that balances the needs of the individual for time off with the needs of the business.

Poor performance

Concerns about performance are best addressed at an early stage and the starting point should be to identify any issues that may be causing or contributing to unsatisfactory performance. Checks and balances should be in place to avoid unrealistic workloads or excessive working hours impacting on employees' mental health. However, the business should always assess if, for example, work-related stress, difficult working relationships or bullying and harassment are factors. This is an area where manager training is crucial as problems can arise from supervisors reacting to performance issues without considering whether the problem stems from mental ill-health.

Reasonable adjustments

Equality legislation requires employers to make reasonable adjustments to help disabled employees. A mental illness such as depression or a mental health condition with symptoms such as anxiety, low mood or panic attacks are impairments that may qualify as a disability. Stress itself is not a disability, but a stress-related condition might be or stress may exacerbate an existing condition. 

A common issue where an employee experiences mental ill-health is a disconnect between what they and the employer consider to be reasonable adjustments – the employee demands to be accommodated in ways that are not practical or sustainable for the employer. What is crucial to keep in sight is that the employer needs go no further than is necessary. The business will not breach its duty unless it fails to make an adjustment that is ‘reasonable’ and there is no obligation to take measures that would impose a disproportionate burden on the employer.

Provided it is equipped with robust policies and procedures and well trained management staff, businesses should not be afraid to tackle scenarios such as these head on.

Jane Hannon is an employment partner at DLA Piper