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When we talk about “mental health”, it can refer to a broad spectrum of issues that may affect a person’s well-being, ranging from day-to-day emotional wellness to diagnosed mental health conditions or mental illness. Today, employers have a legal as well as a moral responsibility to be more proactive in addressing and accommodating mental health in the workplace.

Here are some statistics that demonstrate the importance of recognising employee mental health as a significant issue in modern society, and how it intersects with the employment market:

  • One employee in six suffers from anxiety, depression and stress each year.
  • Mental ill-health costs employers about £35 billion per year.
  • 49% of employees say they would not be comfortable disclosing a mental health issue at work.
  • 74% of people with mental health problems for more than a year are out of work.
  • 55% of people with depression or anxiety for over a year are out of work.

Reasonable Adjustments & Equality Act 2010

The Equality Act 2010 codified previously existing anti-discrimination legislation including, crucially, the Disability Discrimination Act. It’s important to understand that there will be times when employee mental health problems might legally meet the definition of a “disability” under the Act, and that if this is the case, employers are expected by law to make “reasonable adjustments” to accommodate the employee’s condition. Any employee who has long-term mental ill-health, which has a substantial adverse effect on day-to-day activities, is protected under the Equality Act 2010.

Reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010 should normally be tailored to the individual’s unique circumstances, and may require the involvement or input of a medical professional. Adjustments that employers might be expected to make may include, but are not limited to:

  • Changes in working hours or patterns (see our blog on flexible working).
  • Changes to the employee’s working environment.
  • Changes to working practices.
  • Support strategies to help the employee cope.

For more information about employers’ obligations under the Equality Act 2010, we suggest taking a look at the following resources:

Supporting Staff Experiencing a Mental Health Problem

How to Identify a Mental Health Issue

Not all employees feel comfortable coming forward to tell their employer that they have a mental health problem. Therefore, it is important for managers to be able to spot signs of employee mental health issues at an early stage in order to help prevent difficulties escalating into avoidable absence or a workplace crisis. The following symptoms could potentially be signs of a mental health problem:

  • Notable changes in an employee’s behaviour
  • Changes in attendance patterns, such as lateness, working longer hours, or asking for leave at short notice
  • Observable physical symptoms such as headaches, fatigue or changes in sleep patterns
  • Demonstrations of stress, anxiety, tearfulness, indecisiveness or low mood
  • Behavioural symptoms such as irritability, withdrawal or restlessness – these may present as uncharacteristic conflicts with workplace colleagues
  • Marked increases in substance use, such as smoking or drinking

How to Address the Mental Health Issue Effectively

If you have recognised one or more of the symptoms listed above, or if you have other reasons to be concerned for one of your employees’ mental health, then the first step should be to talk to them privately to discuss your observations and establish whether the individual is having difficulties with their mental health.

It’s important not to make assumptions at this stage. While many of the symptoms we’ve given as examples can be indicators of mental ill-health, there could also be other explanations, such as a physical health problem that’s affecting the person’s mood or concentration, or a personal issue such as a relationship break-up or problems at home.

Remember that someone displaying early symptoms of mental ill-health may be reluctant to recognise that they have a genuine health problem which requires action. It’s not your role as an employer to diagnose mental health conditions, so if appropriate you should encourage the individual to visit their GP for professional advice.

How to Provide Ongoing Support to Employees

Even if an employee’s mental health issues are not severe enough to warrant protection as a mental impairment under the Equality Act 2010 (that is, the problems are not long term or severe enough to cause a substantial adverse effect on day-to-day activities), the examples of “reasonable adjustments” listed above can form a useful starting point for helping employees with their mental health.

It can be a good idea to agree a Wellness Action Plan with the employee. This sets out a clear consensus of expectations and agreed actions on the part of both the employee and the employer, and can provide a useful framework for managing mental health in the workplace on an ongoing basis. Wellness Action Plans typically include:

  • Details of agreed reasonable adjustments to assist the employee in managing their mental health in the workplace.
  • A record of factors that can contribute to mental health issues and an agreement of how the employee will manage them if they are unavoidable.
  • A list of signs that might indicate a deterioration in mental health and an agreement of how the individual would like the employer to respond.
  • Actions that the employee can take outside the workplace to support their mental health, including factors such as diet, exercise, adequate sleep, and so on.

Employers have a moral and legal obligation to safeguard their employees’ mental health. For more information, please review the resources mentioned in this article.