Mental health has risen to the top of many workplace agendas in recent years, as employers recognise the importance of it to the retention and attraction of key talent coupled with a boost to their bottom line with a happier and more productive workforce. But while the advantages of making mental health a priority are clear to most, it is far too early to say “job done”.
In Hardy v Topps Tiles plc, a recent employment tribunal case which made national headlines, in large part due to the dramatic nature of the facts (spoiler alert: Mr Hardy was accused of throwing a cup of tea over an enraged customer), an employee was successful in his claim for discrimination arising from a disability following his gross misconduct dismissal.
Though Hardy, who had been diagnosed with depression 20 years previously, broke down in tears in a routine one-to-one with his manager five weeks before the incident which led to his dismissal, the tribunal found that the manager had no “awareness of what ongoing support may be needed, and quickly assumed the claimant was better because he presented as his ‘normal self’ and masked his feelings in the fleeting conversations they had”.
The absence of any real consideration of the employee’s mental health by his employer marks this case as another example of a sad and preventable outcome. There are a number of things employers can do to better embed awareness, understanding and support for mental health in the workplace, including investing in manager training. Managers are, after all, on the front lines in this arena, and employers need to ensure they are best-prepared to perform their role effectively. The benefits of making this investment are clear, and include:
Spotting early warning signs and symptoms
In the first instance, it is important that managers are given the opportunity to develop and hone the tools they need to spot signs and symptoms of a developing mental wellbeing issue, or an existing condition, so they can provide support and early intervention. While changing the culture of a workplace into a psychologically safer space to operate remains the ideal, on a micro level helping managers build up a basic level of awareness and understanding of mental health can pay dividends down the line.
Holding difficult and sensitive conversations
One of the biggest hurdles to managers being effective in this area is the fact that despite investments by companies in mental health support, employees generally can feel uncomfortable talking to their employer about their mental health. In 2021, a survey found that nearly half of employees feared being honest about their mental health in the workplace because they were concerned it could harm their career. To get over that hurdle, managers will likely require training on when and how to hold what can be a challenging and sensitive conversation. It is not about providing medical help or therapy – most managers are not medical professionals, it is about listening and communicating non-judgmentally to help support someone experiencing a mental health issue until professional help is obtained.
Signposting to appropriate forms of internal and external support
The tribunal in the above case called out the lack of awareness of ongoing support which may have been needed. The lesson here is that simply signposting an employee to an employee assistance programme will not be enough to discharge an employer’s duty of care. Managers should be equipped with an understanding of what forms of support might be appropriate in different circumstances (including referrals to Occupational Health for medical advice), as one size will not fit all.
Daniel Stander is an employment lawyer and mental health first aider at Vedder Price LLP