Supporting employees’ mental health: Employers are willing, but are they ready?

Written by: Jenny Hawrot, associate solicitor at Willans | Posted 09 October 2020 6:12

A recent study by mental health charity Mind has revealed that over half (56 per cent) of employers want to do more to improve the wellbeing of their staff, but feel they lack the requisite training and guidance to do so.

Indeed, it’s not a simple exercise, nor one that can ever be finished, especially in the current circumstances.

To coincide with World Mental Health Day (October 10), we ask a big question; how does one encourage a ‘mentally-healthy’ workplace in the midst of a global pandemic?

The good news is, as the stats above show, the vast majority of employers do genuinely care about their staff, and want them to feel happy at work.

From a business perspective, the benefits of cultivating employee wellbeing also can’t be overstated...

ACAS estimates that poor mental health in the workplace costs UK employers £30 billion each year, through loss of productivity, recruitment costs and absence. There’s also the significant fact that employers have a statutory duty to protect the health and safety of their employees, which naturally includes mental health as well as physical health.

So we’ve covered the ‘why’, but what about the ‘how’?

There are some simple measures that any employer, whether large or small, can take to help foster a supportive workplace culture. To be effective, commitment is required from all parts of the organisation, and all the way up the hierarchy; this isn’t a simple box-ticking exercise, you need to be ready to embrace a cultural shift, if that’s what it takes.  

Audit and perform a ‘gap analysis’  

Knowledge is power, and you can’t fix organisational problems that you don’t know about. Just as you would with a regular risk assessment, the objective is to identify hazards and risks in your workplace and then find ways of avoiding them.

Excessive, persistent stress is a clear hazard, in that it can trigger mental ill health or make an existing mental health issue worse. The HSE has produced some free, useful guidance on this. 

It sounds simple, but speak to employees regularly about their stress levels and the reason for them. Excessive workload, lack of support from management and organisational change are commonly-cited causes of workplace stress, but the causes and effects will be unique to each individual organisation, and may even vary between departments and branches.  

Implement an anti-stress policy  

We recommend writing a policy setting out the employer’s attitude to stress and mental health problems in the workplace. Make clear the intention is to protect the mental health of your employees, and provide a process which will encourage them to seek support and assistance when needed.

Of course, it’s not a case of writing an anti-stress policy and leaving it to gather dust in a filing cabinet. You’ll need to commit to putting it into practice, keep it under regular review, and assess it to make sure it is working effectively.  

Don’t forget, if you make changes to working agreements or practices, it might constitute a variation to individuals’ employment contracts; speak to an employment lawyer if you are unsure.

Train staff to spot the early signs

Employers should train staff to recognise the symptoms of stress in themselves and in their colleagues. Spotting stress early and addressing the problem may help to prevent sickness absence, as well as any further incidents in the future.

Many high-profile businesses, such as Lloyds Banking Group, Severn Trent and the National Grid, have trained hundreds of workplace mental health first-aiders to act as ‘first-line’ support.  

In the time of COVID-19, many people are working remotely, which can make the early signs harder to spot. It’s never been more important to check in with your employees to make sure they are doing ok.  

Offer additional support services

Access to professional mental health support can be an invaluable resource for employees who are struggling, particularly if they feel they would prefer to talk to someone in confidence, or someone other than their line manager.

Consider providing confidential counselling services for employees to access which will help to address and alleviate their symptoms.

Understand your obligations as an employer

It is helpful for employers to have an understanding of the point at which mental ill health becomes a disability. Loosely, a disability is a “physical or mental impairment” of an individual, which has a “substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”.

If your employee’s mental ill health is severe enough for it to be considered a disability, you will need to take this into account when it comes to your legal duties and obligations, and this is also the case when recruiting new employees. Again, this can be a tricky area - you might need an employment lawyer to help you with sensitive issues like this.  

Prevention is better than a cure

As with most things, prevention is better than cure, so if you do not already have relevant policies and procedures in place in your business, you would be well advised to introduce them. Remember, the support should be available for everyone in your organisation; don’t forget about business owners and senior staff as well as employees.

Please contact Willans’ employment law team if you would like some assistance.

Jenny Hawrot is a senior associate solicitor in Willans’ employment law team. This month she has been named a ‘rising star’ in independent legal guide The Legal 500. Jenny has wide experience in advising SMEs, owner-managed businesses and organisations employing more than 1,500 staff across the UK.