Debra Gers: Improving employees’ mental health: how to do it and why is it important?

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Blake Morgan's Debra Gers
Many employers want to tackle workplace stress or anxiety and depression more proactively, according to Blake Morgan’s Debra Gers.

Campaigns such as the recent World Mental Health Day and the imminent National Stress Awareness Day all help to maintain the high profile of mental health and employee well-being. But individuals can help too. Mental health experts were full of praise for Prince Harry’s interview earlier in the year when he spoke openly about the effects of his mother’s death on his mental health. The subsequent launch of his campaign “Heads Together” attracted a great deal of media interest.

Employees’ mental health will continue to be newsworthy, mostly because of the scale of the problem, but increasingly because of the innovative ways employers are managing mental health in the workplace.

Looking at some recent statistics:

  • According to YouGov research, commissioned by Business in the Community, 15% of employees who disclosed mental ill-health face dismissal, disciplinary action or demotion. Although 60% of employees have experienced mental health issues, 35% reported not having any workplace facilities to support them, and only 24% of managers have received any training on mental health.
  • An investigation across the NHS revealed that nearly a third of GPs’ fit notes were for mental health problems with a 14% increase in fit notes relating to anxiety and stress between 2015-16 and 2016-17.
  • According to the CIPD Absence Management Survey 2016, nearly a third of respondents reported an increase in stress-related absence in the previous year and this increased to half of public sector organisations.
  • The centre for Mental Health estimates that 91 million days are lost each year due to mental health problems at a cost to employers of £26 billion a year.
  • More than a third of absences in the financial sector (since 2013) were due to mental ill-health and the figure was 24% in the retail sector.

 

Mental health is described as the mental and emotional health that helps us to cope with the stresses of everyday life. Generally, people are in good mental health but experience stress or anxiety from time to time. The Mental Health Foundation is concerned that levels of good mental health are “disturbingly low” and our collective mental health is deteriorating. It recommends a number of steps individuals can take to improve their mental health: for example, talking about your feelings, keeping active, eating well and maintaining good relationships with friends and family.

But in the context of the workplace what can employers do to help their staff and why should they?

Employers have many legal obligations to ensure the health and safety of their staff and this means both their physical and mental health.

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 provides that employers have a legal duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of employees. Other regulations require employers to carry out risk assessments to identify potential risk factors and to take reasonable steps to prevent harm occurring. In addition there are a number of potential claims that may be brought by staff in relation to their health at work such as:

  • Breach of the Working Time Regulations 1998 with regard to rest breaks, limits on the working week and minimum paid holidays.
  • Breach of contract claims, often relating to the implied term of trust and confidence if health issues are handled badly, which could also lead to claims for constructive unfair dismissal.
  • Disability discrimination claims if the health issue relates to a disability under the Equality Act 2010.
  • Negligence claims for personal injury, for example in relation to work-related stress.

 

Wellbeing Focus Week 2015However, aside from these legal obligations, many employers want to tackle workplace stress or anxiety and depression more proactively because healthy, productive and motivated staff are crucial to an organisation’s success. No organisation will flourish if they have staff, particularly in key roles, absent from the business for, potentially, an extended period. Many employers are extending flexible working options and providing access to employee assistance programmes or counselling. Many are trying to create a culture where people feel comfortable talking about their mental health.

Blake Morgan has a dedicated Well-being, Health and Safety programme as part of its firm-wide training academy. It also has a Mental Health First Aid scheme which sees trained mental health champions working to raise awareness of mental health issues. The firm has a Mental Health First Aider in every region where it operates and these are signposted in the same way as physical first aiders. Staff also have access to a wide range of resources via an online portal and these include mindfulness resources such as Be Mindful online courses as well as resources on subjects such as managing stress and coping with change. In addition, Blake Morgan also offers lunchtime yoga sessions.

There is a wealth of information and advice available for employers and a good starting point is the Health and Safety Executive’s Management Standards for work-related stress. The mental health charity Mind has also published extensive guidance including How to support staff who are experiencing a mental health problem. There is also a series of recently published guidance from ACAS, Promoting Positive Mental Health in the Workplace, Dealing with Stress in the Workplace and Managing Staff Experiencing Mental Ill-Health.

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About Debra Gers

Debra Gers is a senior practice support lawyer at Blake Morgan.

Debra is responsible for the firm’s public employment training programme, including the Breakfast Clubs and Summer Employment Law Workshop.

Debra is a regular speaker at legal conferences and external events for organisations including ACAS, the CIPD, HPMA, HR Retail Circle and Welsh Government. She monitors key cases and legislative developments in both the UK and EU to provide legal updates and internal training on topical issues as well as future developments.

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