The coronavirus pandemic has had significant and wide-ranging effects across society. With lockdown restrictions still in place and remote working continuing to play a key role, the ongoing effects of isolation and the toll this is taking on people's mental health is really being felt. Therefore, it is crucial, now more than ever, that employers take steps to support their staff’s mental wellbeing – even if it is over platforms such as Zoom.
Employers have a duty of care to protect the mental and physical health and safety of their workforce; if they don’t, they could expose themselves to a variety of claims. For example, a work-related stress claim, which can succeed if the employee has a medically recognised psychiatric condition; if there was a foreseeable risk to the claimant’s mental health arising from their duties; or if the employer failed to take reasonable steps to reduce any such risks.
Employees who suffer from severe mental health issues and are considered disabled in line with the Equality Act 2010 can also bring disability discrimination claims against their employer, alleging direct discrimination, indirect discrimination, harassment and/or victimisation.
To avoid claims arising, businesses should regularly review their policies and procedures relating to mental health, equal opportunities and stress at work, and should train staff on those policies. Employers may also consider offering a dedicated counselling helpline where practicable, or asking staff to become mental health first aiders.
Employers should be prepared to make reasonable adjustments to working conditions for an individual who is suffering from mental health issues. Reasonable adjustments can take a number of forms and will very much depend on the individual’s circumstances and the support they require. Examples include allowing time off to attend medical appointments or counselling, enabling a phased return to work if they have been off sick, supporting and helping manage workloads, changing contracted hours or permitting a more flexible working arrangement.
For companies struggling to understand what adjustments need to be made, organisations such as Acas, occupational health providers and the government Access to Work scheme all offer support.
A supportive environment
A supportive working environment can give employees much-needed reassurance that mental health issues are not taboo. Employers should foster a culture where open conversations and communication about mental health is encouraged, and employees understand that they will receive the right support if needed.
Employers should also encourage staff to view mental wellbeing as equally important as physical health and ensure this is reflected in their policies. Regular one-to-ones with managers, arranging mental health awareness training and appointing mental health ‘champions’ can all provide vital support.
This past year has been a challenge for so many people for various reasons and so it has never been so important for employers to check in with their staff regularly. The mental wellbeing of employees should be at the forefront of businesses at such times and internal policies on this should be reviewed to ensure they are fit for purpose.
Paul Kelly is head of employment at Blacks Solicitors