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Why employees should be encouraged to talk about mental health issues.

The number of employees speaking up about mental health problems is rising according to research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). More than two fifths of employers say they have seen an increase in staff reporting conditions such as depression and anxiety.

This reporting places certain responsibilities on employers that are set out in the Equality Act 2010. These begin as early as the recruitment process, which must be sure not to discriminate against those with disabilities whether physical or mental.  Although there are cases where employers can ask a narrow range of questions about particular disabilities in order to be sure that a candidate will be able to fulfill a given role, for example, in general there is no obligation on the part of an applicant to disclose a mental health condition.

If an employee mentions mental health problems once a job offer has been made, then the employer is on notice of it. Once a mental health problem is disclosed, the employer is bound by law to not only ensure that there is no discrimination, harassment or victimisation, but that they have made “reasonable adjustments” to create a level playing field for all employees.

On the other hand the employee is not obliged to mention a problem. If the employee says nothing, copes very well with their job, looks as though they’re making the progress that has been hoped, gets a few promotions, and then has a complete breakdown out of the blue, the law there says that the primary responsibility of the welfare of the employee is on the employee themselves.

The difficulty here comes in that many employees feel unable to talk openly about mental health issues. Historically, there has been a reticence amongst employers to encourage employees to disclose mental health issues they may be facing because this then places a legal responsibility on the employer. The research shows that more and more employers are being faced with the problem of encouraging staff to be more open about issues they consider private so that reasonable adjustments can be made.  Properly handled this is felt to be an outcome that both supports the employee and protects the employer.

Exactly what a reasonable adjustment entails, however, isn’t always easy to define. While it’s relatively straightforward for a manager to assist a visually impaired employee by providing a braille keyboard, it’s harder to know exactly what someone with anxiety or depression might need in order to continue to fulfil their role.

Dr Jill Miller, a research adviser for the CIPD, says it is important to consider each individual’s needs. Miller believes it is vital for employers to consider their roles and responsibilities towards staff with mental health problems, not only because it is the right thing to do but also for the business benefits, primarily the reduction of sick leave and the retention of trained and experienced staff.

“It’s about training line managers to be able to talk about these things, because it’s likely that they’re the people who staff will be coming to saying, ‘I’m anxious, I’m struggling, I can’t sleep at night.’ We can’t expect a line manager to just know how to have these conversations about potentially very difficult issues, we need to provide training and support for them.”

CIPD research suggests that when mental health problems are handled sensitively, the results go beyond avoiding a discrimination suit and have a positive impact on absence costs, morale, staff turnover and loyalty.