Plain English Guide to British Employment Law
It’s all in the mind: mental health in the workplace
Mental health charity Mind recently published research based on a survey of 15,000 employees across 30 organisations. The report reveals a number of differences between men and women noting that ‘although men are more likely to have mental health problems because of their job, women are more likely to open up and seek support from their line manager or employer’. There was also a difference in how men and women feel they are supported with 3 in 5 women saying their manager regularly checked on how they are feeling but only 1 in 2 men felt the same.
Mental ill-health in the workplace is an important issue with some estimates suggesting it could be costing £26 billion each year and perhaps 1 in 6 employees suffering mental ill-health issues. As such ignoring mental health issues does not make good business sense. Reasonable practices to accommodate such employees can help productivity and retention of staff as well as fulfilling legal obligations.
Employer’s legal responsibilities and employee protections
Employers have statutory health and safety duties to their employees to take reasonable care of them in the workplace. In addition, the Equality Act 2010 protects people from discrimination on grounds of gender, age or disability. Mental ill-health can fall under the category of disability, if it has an adverse effect on the ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities, and the Act protects such persons from unfair treatment.
Employer responsibility to make ‘reasonable adjustments’
An employer may be also be discriminating against an employee if the employer fails to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ in respect of the disabled person. Practical examples of such adjustments include altering working hours or patterns, providing quiet spaces, job sharing and HR support. The obligations apply to recruitment as well as existing employees.
An important caveat, however, especially in the context of the Mind research regarding men having more issues but being less open about them, is that the employer may have a defence where they are unaware of the disability. For example, in Secretary of State for Works and Pensions v Alam (2010) the employer was excused from the duty to make adjustments. The DWP did not know of the employee’s depression and could not reasonably have been expected to know that his disability placed him at a disadvantage.
The law provides important protections for those suffering mental ill-health in the workplace. These can benefit both employee and employer alike. But having rights and responsibilities is one thing, understanding them another.