Mental health issues in the workplace

Features Posted 11/04/17
In more severe cases, an employee’s mental health condition may amount to a disability under the Equality Act 2010.

An employee comes to you and tells you he is stressed. Your initial thought might be: “Aren’t we ALL stressed?” You’re worried about him, but with work piling up and tight deadlines to meet, it is easy to set aside this employee and focus on more immediate matters, writes Sona Voreux, solicitor at Clarkson Wright & Jakes. But, what if the employee came to you because he was really struggling? What if he could no longer cope in the workplace, and it was the work environment itself that was causing him stress? What are your duties towards him as an employer, and what should your response be in this situation?

The first thing to note is that often an employee will not actually admit to their employer that they are suffering from stress. Mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, are still seen by many as not “real” or, at best, a “secondary” kind of illness. A physical illness is easier to see, and therefore believe, compared to a mental illness, so employees are more likely to blame their sickness absence on something gastric or a cold, rather than stress. Therefore, if an employee has come to tell you they are stressed, do not treat this lightly. It has probably taken a lot of courage for them to say what they are feeling out loud, and it is likely to be a genuine cry for help.

So, what should you do? As an employer, you have a duty of care towards your employees to ensure their health and safety in the workplace. In the first instance, listen to your employee and ask him how he thinks you can help him to manage his stress? Maybe he needs more training; maybe he needs to take on less work; or maybe he feels overwhelmed and needs some support. Conduct a risk assessment and consider what you can reasonably do to help manage his stress and put measures in place to alleviate the pressure he is under. Sometimes it can be as simple as allowing your employee to take mini breaks during working hours so that he can take a short period of time away from his desk and gather his thoughts. Consider offering buddy/mentoring support so that he has someone to go to if he feels that the stress is building up.

There might be personal reasons from his home life which are also adding to his stress/anxiety. Maybe he is a carer for an elderly parent or is dealing with a recent bereavement or a difficult relationship. The key is to try to understand where your employee is coming from and to try to tackle the issues head on. If you have noticed that he is taking more and more sickness absence, then perhaps consider agreeing a period of (paid/unpaid) leave so that he can take some time away from work to deal with the issues and return having rested and recovered.

In more severe cases, an employee’s mental health condition may amount to a disability under the Equality Act 2010. An employer is under a duty to make reasonable adjustments for a disabled employee – unless they did not know (or could not reasonably be expected to know) about the disability. You can refer specific questions to the consultant, for example if the underlying health condition has an impact on the employee’s day-to-day activities; if the condition amounts to a disability; and what reasonable adjustments they can recommend. Take action as soon as you become aware of any issues and seek legal advice if you are unsure about how to deal with a particular issue or want to put in place a policy dealing with stress and mental health issues at work.

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