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7 October 2019

Mental Health in the Workplace

Your mobile phone doubles up as a workstation, you can be contacted almost anywhere in the world at any time, it’s no wonder we often struggle to maintain a healthy work-life balance in today’s age of technological evolution.

Often, we tend to focus on the ‘work’ part a bit too much and the ‘life’ part too little. All it can take is a brief (but demanding) buzz in your pocket and you’re back to answering emails in your spare time even though you aren’t in the office.

You might think this increase in working hours leads businesses to perform better – offering a more instant service to clients, or dealing with internal issues quickly and efficiently, the charity Working Families is launching the national Work-Life week during the week 7-11 October 2019, which aims to challenge that assumption and raise awareness of the negative impact a poor work-life balance can have on staff and businesses in the long term.

For example, a Mental Health Foundation survey recently found that as working hours increase, so does the likelihood of experiencing stress, anxiety or depression. This link between work-life balance and mental health should be taken seriously by employers, not just for the benefit of the health of their staff but for the cost consequences involved if they fail to address the risks. Below is an exploration of the issues that arise when staff work-life balance becomes unstable, causing mental ill-health to occur in the office, and considers how to best address mental ill-health in the workforce with consistency and in compliance with the law.

The impact on the business:

A recent Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development study highlighted the impact that mental ill-health can have on organisations, finding:

• 37% of sufferers are more likely to get into conflict with colleagues
• 57% find it harder to juggle multiple tasks
• 80% find it difficult to concentrate
• 62% take longer to do tasks
• 50% are potentially less patient with customers/clients.

Clearly then, staff with good mental health are more likely to perform well, have good attendance levels and be engaged in their work. So promoting positive work-life balance which improves the mental health of staff in your workplace can be a hugely beneficial step towards increasing efficiency and preventing further health issues from arising.

Policies and procedures:

Businesses with written policies and procedures are able to monitor and manage absences for mental ill-health far more effectively than those that don’t. Company policies promoting a healthy work-life balance and addressing sickness absence, as well as capability or persistent short term absences means that staff are clear on what will happen should they have time off sick. This also ensures you are consistent with staff and provides a process for you to follow when issues arise. Naturally, it is important that employees are aware of and understand the policies as soon as you implement them in the workplace.
It would also be sensible to include an obligation in the employee’s contract of employment that they attend an independent medical examination at your request. This will enable you to obtain a qualified medical view on their ability to work and whether you should begin making changes to try and improve their mental health.

Managing staff experiencing mental ill-health:

You should be both confident and proactive in supporting staff experiencing mental ill-health. In order to effectively manage absences, keep detailed records and review them periodically if necessary. You should then be able to spot any patterns of illnesses which might suggest underlying mental health problems. This also helps you manage employees who take short but frequent periods of time off.

A return to work interview can be especially useful at identifying any mental health issues. They allow you the time with the employee to properly ascertain the reason for the time off, whether it be something related to work or something in their personal life. This can also offer the employee an opportunity to confide in someone if they need it, thereby enabling them to receive the support they need to recover and return to work.

Reasonable adjustments:

It is also important to be proactive if an employee’s absence/s suggest their mental health amounts to a disability. You should always seek the opinion of a doctor or medical expert at an early stage and attempt to minimise their symptoms if you can.

If an employee’s mental health does constitute a disability, be aware of your obligations under the Equality Act 2010. For example, having taken medical advice you should consider how you can make reasonable adjustments to an employees duties in order to better accommodate their illness at work.

Personal Injury:

There is a clear rationale for businesses to take the approach outlined above and promote good mental health in the workplace too. Changing an employers approach to work related stress doesn’t just benefit the employees, it can benefit the business by reducing absence levels and improving overall performance.

Employers also have a legal obligation to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees. Businesses have a duty of care over their staff, and this includes psychiatric injury suffered as a result of the employer’s negligence. If an employee can show that the employer knew, or should have known, that the injury would occur then they can bring a civil claim for damages against them in court. This reinforces the importance of obtaining medical evidence about the employee’s mental health and minimising the risks of it getting worse.

For more information on our Employment services for employees and or employment services for businesses, please contact our employment law team on employment@steeleslaw.co.uk or call 01603 598000. Appointments available in Norwich, Diss and London.

*The information provided in this article is designed to provide useful information on the subject, not to provide specific legal advice.

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