Tackling mental ill-health in the workplace

20 Mar 2018 By Fiona Rushforth and Laura Conway

How big a problem does it pose and what should employers be doing to address it? Fiona Rushforth and Laura Conway report

According to mental health charity Mind, one in four people experience mental ill-health each year. This has a huge financial cost for employers – mental health-related absences alone are estimated at £26bn annually. But it can also cause many other problems such as loss of productivity, damage to relationships with colleagues and customers, and potentially serious mistakes. 

There are many reasons that mental health issues arise in the workplace. Studies by the Health and Safety Executive have identified excessive workloads as the most common cause of stress, anxiety and depression (in 44 per cent of all cases), followed by lack of support (14 per cent) and bullying (13 per cent). Another recent study by Bupa found that the increased tendency of employees to check their work mobile phones outside working hours, while on holiday or off sick meant staff were failing to properly rest and recharge. 

With its hugely detrimental effect on workers' lives, company cohesion and profitability, why is the issue of workplace mental health so hard for employers to get a grip on? 

One of the greatest difficulties is the stigma that still surrounds the issue. Employees that would have no problem telling their employer about a physical complaint will hide a mental health condition. They may fear being branded as weak or vulnerable, or even dismissed if they admit to ‘not coping’. Some may also feel their condition will be dismissed on the basis that ‘everyone gets stressed’ – which, while true, fails to appreciate the difference between ‘normal’ stress and damaging stress that can lead to more serious and long-lasting conditions. 

Acas, in recognition of the scale of this problem, has recently published guidance on the responsibilities of employers to manage workplace mental health. The guidance creates new responsibilities for businesses to actively improve the mental health of their workforce and tackle the causes of mental ill-health. 

The need to comply with the Acas guidance – which, while not compulsory, is likely to be considered by tribunals in employment claims when deciding whether the company has breached its responsibilities – is yet another reason for employers to ensure they do all they can to address the issue. 

Tips for employers

Crucially, the guidance focuses heavily on the problem of stigma and how this should be dealt with. It recommends that employers: 

  • develop an action plan to change attitudes; 
  • create a mental health policy to set out its values; 
  • train managers and ensure they champion awareness and fight stigma; 
  • tackle work-related causes of mental ill-health; and 
  • educate the workforce.

One key step businesses should take is to make sure they implement training across the whole workforce. Employees need to understand that they will not be judged or criticised for having a mental health condition, and know that their employer will be there to support them. They can also be trained in how to recognise and manage the signs of mental health issues in themselves and colleagues. 

Training for management is just as crucial. Managers need to be able to recognise the early signs of mental health problems – such as tiredness, distraction, irritability, loss of temper and out-of-character behaviour – and know how to address them. Lack of proper training can lead to managers ignoring the issue because of the awkwardness of dealing with it, rather than intervening and providing help at an early stage. 

In a worst-case scenario, poor decision-making – such as taking away responsibilities without consultation, piling on the pressure regardless or making derogatory remarks – can even lead to legal claims, including personal injury, disability discrimination and constructive dismissal. 

It is also recommended that employers appoint ‘mental health champions’ who will actively promote good mental health and fight stigma. Some large organisations, such as central government, have internal blogging sites where staff at all levels can talk about their mental health. 

Acas also advises employers to get their staff involved as much as possible in developing their policies and strategy. They should also audit their workforce – for example, using employee questionnaires – so they can identify the causes of mental health issues and any particular problem areas. 

Fiona Rushforth and Laura Conway are senior associates at Wedlake Bell

Deputy Director of People, Culture & Transformation

Deputy Director of People, Culture & Transformation

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