The COVID-19 pandemic has had significant and wide-ranging effects across society. Lockdown restrictions remain in place, and remote working continues to play a key role. As the ongoing effects of isolation are felt, the mental health of many people has suffered.
With people spending an average of 37 hours per week working1, the role of the workplace and employers in supporting the mental health of employees is crucial, even over video platforms such as Zoom.
Employers have a duty of care to protect the mental and physical health and safety of their workforce, and, if not adhered to, this can expose them to a variety of claims from employees.
A work-related stress claim can succeed if, for example, the employee has a medically recognised psychiatric illness, there was a foreseeable risk to the mental health of the employee arising from their work, or the employer failed to take reasonable steps to prevent or reduce that risk.
Employees who suffer from severe mental health issues and are considered disabled for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010 can also bring disability discrimination claims against their employer, alleging direct discrimination, indirect discrimination, harassment, and/or victimisation.
Employers can take steps to avoid claims by regularly reviewing their policies and procedures relating to mental health, equal opportunities and stress at work, as well as training employees on those policies.
Employers may also consider offering a dedicated counselling helpline where practicable, or asking staff to become mental health first aiders.
An employer should be prepared to make adjustments to working conditions for an individual who is suffering from mental health issues if it is reasonable in the circumstances.
Reasonable adjustments can take a number of forms and will very much depend on the individual and the support they require in the circumstances.
Examples of reasonable adjustments employers could consider include allowing time off to attend medical appointments or counselling, enabling a phased return to work for employees who have been off sick due to mental health issues, supporting an employee with a managed workload, and changing contracted hours or permitting a more flexible method of working.
For employers struggling to understand what adjustments need to be made, there are a number of organisations which can offer support including ACAS, occupational health providers, and the Access to Work scheme operated by the government.
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 are encouraged, and employees understand that they will receive the right support if needed.
Employers should consider encouraging their workforce to view mental and physical health as equally important, and make sure this is reflected in workplace policies.
Regular one-to-ones with managers, arranging mental health awareness training, and appointing mental health ‘champions’ can all provide employees with the support they need should they suffer from mental health issues.
An employer should always take the mental health of employees seriously as this will ensure that everyone thrives, make a business profitable, and attract new talent.
As the past 10 months have been so challenging, particularly as people are forced to continue isolating, it’s never been so important for employers to regularly check in with their staff and make sure that their policies for dealing with mental health are fit for purpose.
Paul Kelly is Head of Employment at Blacks Solicitors.