Q: I have been reading that depression and anxiety are the most common causes of long-term absence at work. In light of this, what are my responsibilities as an employer around mental health in the workplace?
A: Mental health issues are often seen as hidden illnesses. If they go unrecognised and untreated they can lead to people taking long periods of time off work to get treatment and allow the sufferer to return to full health.
Employers who recognise the importance of having good mental health initiatives, and take steps to address concerns and support staff, are likely to find their workforce is healthier and more productive than those who do not.
All employers have a duty to take reasonable care for the health and safety of staff while they are at work. This extends to mental health and requires employers to take reasonable care to prevent mental health issues occurring.
Having a positive and proactive approach towards tackling mental health will set employers in the best position to prevent problems; ignoring symptoms should not be an option.
Certain mental health conditions can be classed as disabilities for employment law purposes. The Equality Act 2010 defines a disability as an impairment that has a substantial and long-term effect on a person’s ability to do normal day-to-day activities and some mental health conditions will fall within this definition.
Employees who have a disability are protected against less favourable treatment from their employer on these grounds. Employers are also placed under a duty to make reasonable adjustments to remove disadvantages faced by employees.
To effectively handle mental health, employers need to adequately train managers to ensure frontline staff are being supported by their immediate supervisor. Training should focus on how managers can create a positive communication culture, set achievable targets, guide performance and identify whether anyone is struggling with their workload.
Studies are showing that more staff are feeling pressure to stay switched on, even after finishing work, due to a greater use of technology and remote working. Identifying workload pressures at an early stage and setting out expectations for working hours will contribute towards reducing mental health issues.
A proactive way of taking responsibility for improving the mental health of employees is to provide workplace support. Simple steps to identify courses or talks and promote these to staff will provide them with a forum to discuss their issues.
Other initiatives, such as offering an employee assistance programme that provides confidential counselling service on a range of topics, will help employees talk about their personal and workplace problems that can affect mental wellbeing.
David Price is group director of Health Assured