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The dangers of failing to support mental health cannot be underestimated

James Harvey, partner BLM, Julian Cox, partner and employment law expert BLM and Jacqui Beasley, Head of Partnerships at CBT Clinics

Protecting employee mental health in the workplace is more important than ever before, particularly as COVID-19 continues to disrupt ways of working. With a second lockdown now rolled out across England, increased restrictions in place across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, pandemic worries and the increasingly blurred boundaries between working and home life mean many UK workers are staring down the barrel of COVID-19 ‘burnout’ and poor mental health.

There are four key reasons that protecting employee mental health should be at the top of the agenda for any responsible business right now, with moral, legal, reputational and economic responsibilities at play.

With these in mind, organisations should look to collaborate with specialist services, such as mental health providers and practitioners, to devise a successful, practicable strategy for dealing with mental health issues in the workplace.

Moral & Reputational

There are a number of benefits, at an employee and organisational level, for businesses that proactively manage mental health, support employees and promote a culture of mental health awareness. It can increase engagement, productivity and performance levels in staff, and reduce employee distress or absenteeism.

Proactive management can create a safer, more empathetic and supportive working environment, and actually help build an organisation’s reputation as an employer that genuinely cares for its people. This in turn might attract new talent, and help with retaining existing team members.

Promoting wellbeing and mental health awareness can also go a long way for ensuring teams feel supported in the workplace. There are some really simple measures and resources organisations can provide to help improve general mental wellbeing amongst staff, whether it’s encouraging gentle exercise or offering group classes, arranging social activities, or educating on balanced nutrition and mindfulness strategies as well as training.

Legal

Work-related stress and mental ill health claims are on the rise, with employers facing action if they are perceived to have not protected employee mental wellbeing. The Equality Act 2010 affords a number of protections to employees and workers with regard to mental health. Employers have a duty to: assess which reasonable adjustments ought to be made for individuals suffering from mental health issues; handle complaints from those suffering from anxiety or stress in the workplace; handle capacity dismissals, and manage short and long-term absenteeism due to mental health issues.

If not proactively managed or handled inappropriately, and by failing to seek appropriate legal advice, employers could be exposed to claims on a number of grounds. These include discrimination claims pursued in line with Equality Act 2010, unfair dismissal claims, automatic unfair dismissal for health and safety or whistleblowing reasons, constructive dismissal claims or claims that the workplace gave rise to psychiatric illness.

Economic

Whilst many businesses are currently facing a myriad of COVID-19 challenges, particularly financial, the impact of poor mental health must not be underestimated. From an economic perspective, the cost of mental health in the UK was estimated to be approximately £45 billion in 2020, up 5% from 2017.

Further, there is a measurable return on investment for those who invest in high-quality training and mental wellbeing interventions. According to a 2017 report from Deloitte, expert mental health training in the workplace can deliver a return on investment of up to eight times; measures reviewed included offering employees cognitive behavioural therapy sessions with a mental health practitioner, training line managers on mental health support and investing in an organisation-wide awareness drive by offering stress management sessions or personalised exercise sessions as standard, for example.

In practice

Early interventions, prevention, education and treatment are key, and can be strengthened by working in collaboration with mental health service providers and practitioners and legal advisors to ensure a thorough plan is in place. Early intervention might include screening employees, triaging any at-risk individuals, and providing regular wellbeing checks. Prevention and education can include specialist mental health sessions, stress prevention and resilience training and general mental health awareness training. These measures promote a culture of mental health as an organisational priority, with employers committed to supporting and protecting employee wellbeing.

Organisations should also consider how this support extends to employees who may need to access treatment, and potentially offering therapy or other evidence-based treatments as part of a healthcare package, or devising a pathway for employees to access appropriate clinical support.

Let’s put this system of early intervention – education / prevention – treatment into context. Imagine a senior employee comes forward with concerns that their underlying health issues are being exacerbated by the pandemic. The employee has suffered from anxiety and depression previously, which the employer is aware of. With talk of a return to the office once lockdown has lifted, the employee approaches HR to convey their anxiety about the risk of infection given their conditions.

In this example, the HR head believes they are being unreasonable, and states that if the employee is not prepared to return to the office, disciplinary action may be considered. This worsens their anxiety, with the employee visiting the GP to be signed off as unfit to work for a month. However, they are a well-regarded and productive member of the team that the company is keen to get back into work.

How can the organisation best proceed in this situation, that could very well leave them exposed to a claim? By seeking specialist legal and HR advice, the organisation could devise a strategy to investigate and resolve the grievance, clear the air and support the employee back into work, making reasonable adjustments to account for wellbeing and underlying health conditions. It means the employer can retain a talented member of the team, support their progress and most importantly, ensure they feel protected in the workplace. Further, working with a firm that is in collaboration with clinical practitioners – as with BLM and CBT Clinics’ partnership – organisations can access clinical support and advice for affected employees.

Mental health is firmly on the agenda, and there is no excuse for a responsible employer to sweep the issue under the rug any longer. As we become more open with discussing wellbeing in the workplace, organisations must also become better equipped at dealing with the causes of, and solutions for, mental ill health in the workplace in a practicable, appropriate and supportive manner.

By taking a holistic look at mental health in the workplace and engaging with specialist wellbeing, legal, insurance and medical advice, organisations can ensure their key responsibilities to employees are met, and that the people at the heart of a business feel supported.

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