Today is World Mental Health Day, so it is important to remember the shocking statistic that 1 in 4 of us will suffer with some form of mental illness during our lifetime.  This may manifest as stress, anxiety or depression (which is not always formally medically diagnosed) or conditions such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Mental health at work survey

A national survey published last week by charity Business in the Community and YouGov, confirms that although some progress has been made, the stigma of mental health remains deeply entrenched in UK businesses.  The survey also confirms that significantly more of the workforce is impacted than you might think.  Twenty thousand employees were surveyed, and 77% of them said they had experienced symptoms of poor mental health. Of those employees who had experienced poor mental health, 62% attributed their symptoms to work or said it was a contributing factor.  Despite this, only 11% of employees discussed a recent mental health problem with their line manager. It also seems there is a disconnect between what is happening in the workplace and what those running businesses think, as 60% of the managers surveyed believed that their company was supportive.

Devon and Cornwall

So does this reflect what is happening in Devon and Cornwall?  In my opinion, awareness of the issue has definitely improved, with some businesses doing a great deal to be more open about it and being very supportive of staff.  An employer’s attitude often reflects whether they have personal experience of mental illness themselves or via friends and family.  However, in many local businesses mental health is still ‘the Elephant in the Room’ that is not talked about.  Businesses are good at recognising and protecting physical health, but poorer at recognising and protecting mental health.

Smaller businesses (of which there are many in our area) struggle to know what to do and fear saying the wrong thing. They often feel they have little personal time or capacity within their business to support an employee with mental health issues.  They often strive to ‘treat everyone the same’, without realising that actually they have a legal responsibility to take positive action to support someone with mental health issues, particularly if the employee falls under the definition of having a disability under the Equality Act 2010. This can apply even if the employer feels the condition is not very serious: it can be hard to really know the impact mental health issues are having on a person and it’s easy to make assumptions that are not correct.

Advice for employers

The positive action expected of employers includes: speaking to the employee regularly to understand how they are getting on and asking what can be done to support them;  getting regular  medical reports so you can understand the condition (usually via an occupational health doctor or the person treating them); making reasonable adjustments to their work or working environment to enable them to continue to work effectively;  and (having got their consent) educating those working alongside them about the condition so they are sensitive to the employee’s needs and possible limitations.

Employers also have to make sure that the employee is not treated adversely because of their condition or because of matters arising from their condition. For example, if a person is making mistakes at work, is falling out with staff or failing to following instructions, employers should not give warnings or dismiss unless they have investigated and considered the impact of mental health issues first.

Businesses can also take wider practical steps to support all of their staff. For example, ensuring there is enough time for regular catch ups with staff, training mangers to spot and deal with issues, preparing stress risk assessments and appointing their own mental health champion.

As the recent survey has confirmed, it does make business sense as well as legal sense.  Helping staff cope with mental health problems and continue to play their part at work will improve productivity, loyalty and retention of skilled and experienced employees.

Advice for employees

Should employees try to be more honest and open about how they feel? This would certainly help. Telling your employer what the issue is and how you think you could be supported or what you need should help to start a positive discussion about this. You may find that they had no idea or were too afraid to intervene in what they felt was ‘private’.  You can also ask them to keep this confidential so only those who have to know to help make changes, do know.

Mental health is important to everyone – whether it affects us or someone we know – and is something we should all take responsibility to address.  Action is needed to reduce the stigma around mental health issues. That positive action can, and should, start in the work place.

Verity Slater is one of the South West’s leading employment solicitors. She is a partner in the employment team at Stephens Scown LLP, which has offices in Truro, St Austell and Exeter. To contact Verity, please call 01872 265100, email solicitors@stephens-scown.co.uk or visit www.stephens-scown.co.uk