· Features

Don’t be scared of the mental health conversation

Many employers still find it difficult to judge how to approach their employees' mental health

According to the NHS one in four people have been recognised as having a mental health issue at some point in their lives. As such, having an open and honest conversation about mental health is now resulting in significant awareness, helped by high-profile people spanning the worlds of celebrity and sport discussing their own mental health stories.

This all raises the importance and value of mental health at work for those with existing issues, for those at risk, and for the workforce as a whole. But many employers still find it difficult to judge how to approach the matter. When this happens it can have a detrimental impact on both the company and the health of the employee. In some cases this leads to legal action – an outcome that no-one wants.

These reactions are often caused by many employers still seeing mental health as a ‘taboo’ subject, rather than something that can be manageable through close co-operation with the employee. It is vital that both employer and employee are on the same page when it comes to obligations regarding mental health.

For example, a comprehensive employment contract and staff handbook could be one way of clearly outlining the support available. Many employers realise that an important part of creating a positive working environment is being clear from the outset on how they approach the issue of employee wellbeing and mental health. Companies that address the issue of mental health in a transparent way – for example investing in training for managers, or creating a clear process for employees wanting to discuss potential issues in a comfortable and confidential environment – are much less likely to face legal pitfalls further down the line.

In some cases changes could be as relatively straightforward as implementing a new approach to flexible working, which better complements an employee’s lifestyle. There is also value in delivering discounts on physical wellbeing activities through benefit schemes.

For example, businesses such as Innocent and Sweaty Betty make flexible hours and yoga clubs available to all employees, placing an emphasis on the impact physical health has on mental wellbeing. Professional services firms such as EY have addressed their employee mental wellbeing by encouraging physical exercise with office sports teams and cycle to work schemes. In many cases companies have also implemented confidential counselling services.

When we think about our physical health there is a place for keeping ourselves fit and a place for getting appropriate help as early as possible so we can get better. Mental health is the same. If a business’ approach to employee wellbeing is clearly outlined in the employment contract and accompanying policies at the start of a relationship, and a culture of open and honest conversation is encouraged, then there is less risk that they will face legal problems when and if an issue of mental health arises.

It is important employees receive the appropriate support and if necessary, treatment, and any return to work is discussed in a realistic and open way, with the employee feeling supported, and a clear process that both parties understand. For example: most people with ongoing mental health problems are likely to meet the definition of disability under the Equality Act (2010) and thus be afforded protection from discrimination (among other things) for having this protected characteristic. A disabled person can be someone with a physical or a mental impairment and they are entitled to ask for reasonable adjustments to their job or workplace to accommodate their disability. As well as the duty to consider reasonable adjustments, the Equality Act also protects people from harassment because of a disability. This means that employers have a duty to address bullying and discriminatory behaviours relating to mental health just as they would for someone with a physical disability.

Without doubt, the raised awareness of tackling mental health in the workplace has broken down many barriers. From an employee perspective a more open culture means they feel more comfortable talking to their employer, knowing they will be taken seriously. Certainly a toxic working environment can be corrosive to our mental health. For employers, having a clear wellbeing policy means they are both able to address mental health issues confidently, and they are seen as progressive companies that people want to work for.

Despite progress being made there is still work to be done. So by getting a robust policy in place and by making flexible working, healthcare and fitness options clearer businesses can protect both themselves and their employees, creating a better environment for all.

Sarah Begley is an employment solicitor at the Wilkes Partnership

Further reading

Could half days off help tackle mental ill health?

It's not weak to struggle with mental health

Spotting your mental health red flags