Time to talk about workplace mental wellbeing
Workplace mental wellbeing is a top concern among employers, according to European-wide research.
According to the World Health Organization, lost productivity due to mental illness costs Europe US$140 billion per year. In the UK, workplace mental illness is estimated to cost 2% of GDP and the latest statistics from the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) show that work-related stress, depression or anxiety now represents 44% of all work-related ill health and 54% of working days lost - a total of 12.8 million days in 2018/19.
The continuing rise in such figures highlights the need for companies to increase their focus on mental health to ensure employee wellbeing and avoid complaints or litigation from staff. One of the initiatives designed to encourage such dialogue is Time to Talk Day, which takes place on 6th February this year.
Workload pressures, tight deadlines, too much responsibility, and a lack of managerial support were the main reasons given as the cause of workplace stress in the HSE findings. Employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress at work by undertaking a risk assessment and acting on it.
And where an employee is suffering from a mental health condition which has a long-term effect on day to day activity, this may be classed as a disability, requiring the employer to take positive action under the Equality Act 2010. The Equality Act makes it unlawful for an employer to treat a disabled person less favourably because of their disability, without a justifiable reason.
Severe depression or anxiety is not enough on its own to meet the definition of 'disability' under the Equality Act, unless it has a substantial, long-term impact on an individual's abilities. But, whatever the extent of an individual's mental health issues, there is a responsibility on the employer to provide responsible support and protection from unfair or discriminatory treatment.
In extreme situations, mental health may result in work-related suicide attempts. Men working in construction are shown to have an increased risk and union officials have said the Hinkley Point nuclear power station project is grappling with a mental health crisis. According to the Unite union there were 10 suicide attempts in the first four months of 2019, as well as a rise in the number of people off sick with stress, anxiety and depression, and an increase in workers suffering from mental distress.
Explained employment law expert Mark Ridley of Band Hatton Button solicitors: "Such reports are a tragic reflection of the long-term impact that stress in the workplace may have on workers. Fortunately, this situation is not common, but demonstrates why it is so important for organisations to face up to the challenge of employee wellbeing. Employees need to feel supported and not worried about what will happen if they speak up. That comes down to having the right culture in the organisation."
He added: "A good starting point is to review processes and practice to see whether they provide support and protection from unfair or discriminatory treatment. If there are gaps, then make sure they are closed. In the same way that employees with physical issues need to be supported to fulfil their role, by seeking out reasonable adjustments to support them, the same applies for anyone with mental health issues"
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This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.