Mental health is increasingly talked about in the media nowadays, whether this is because there has been an increase in those suffering from such conditions or just that there is greater recognition we don’t know. It seems as a result that the Government has finally agreed to act, with the Prime Minister pledging to help companies and schools deal better with mental illness. Among the promises made are commitments to change attitudes to mental health problems as well as offering training to employers to help them support staff who need to take time off due to a mental illness.
Currently the UK’s employment legislation does not specifically cover mental illness. The Equality Act provides protection from discrimination for anyone who suffers from a disability; many mental health conditions are likely to be considered a disability within the meaning of the act and, as such, will place a duty on employers with mentally ill employees to make reasonable adjustments. This may mean accommodating reduced hours and allowing employees to take additional time off for medical appointments. These are basic provisions and, other than a standard duty of care, the employer does not necessarily have to have anything in place to further support member of their staff with a mental health condition. Failure to consider reasonable adjustments and treating the employee less favourably than you would an employee without a mental health condition can give rise to a claim for discrimination, for which the compensation is uncapped. In 2015 the average employment tribunal award was £17,319.
The changes Theresa May laid out are designed to not only improve mental health services but also remove the stigma that can be attached to such illnesses. Training for employers may well be beneficial and necessary but it’s difficult to envisage how this will be manifested and enforced. It may simply be that employers will be able to access support or be able to apply for some form of funding for training but it’s unlikely at this point that any employer would be forced to take these measures.
Whilst business forums will inevitably say that this is just another burden on the employer and will hit small businesses the most, given that mental illness is prevalent it may be that this will be beneficial to companies in the long term. One in four adults will experience a mental health condition in any given year and, with the cost of replacing staff due to mental health conditions reported to be £2.4bn per year in the UK, it makes sense for employers to help their employees combat the illness and build a culture of acceptance and support.
Being realistic about the pressures employees are under and ensuring they have a good work/life balance, offering support such as confidential counselling or occupational health consultations, employee assistance programmes, mindfulness and relaxations sessions and/or flexible working options are all ways in which a company can help support their employees who may be suffering in silence. There are also mental health first aid training courses, such as the ones offered by ELAS, which can help managers know what signs to look for, ways in which they can approach the subject of mental health with their employees, improve their listening skills and know what options are available to help support someone who is struggling with a mental health condition.
Here are four simple steps a company can take to ensure their employees maintain a good work/life balance:
• Have defined working hours. Ensure that employee workloads are manageable within these time constraints.
• Encourage a culture of openness. Employees must feel able to speak up if the demands placed on them are too great.
• Train managers to recognise the signs of stress and a poor work/life balance in employees. Know the effects that stress can have on a person and put preventative measures in place.
• Put in place policies that acknowledge the links between work-related stress and mental health. Regularly monitor and evaluate polices against performance indicators i.e. sickness or staff satisfaction.