Mental health report shows need to ‘address mental health’ in the workplace

The Mental Health Foundation (MHF) has released a study, which shows that 74% of adults have felt overwhelmed and unable to cope at some point in the past year. The percentage was even higher among women and those between 18–24 years old. The study, which coincides with the Mental Health Awareness Week, also shows that 32% of people have experienced suicidal feelings and 16% of adults have self-harmed. Fudia Smartt, partner at specialist employment boutique at Hine Legal, says the report highlights the importance of addressing mental health issues in the workplace and shows employers need to engage in a dialogue with employees to understand the issues they’re facing.

The MHF commissioned the study from YouGov and is believed to be the largest and most comprehensive stress survey ever carried out across the UK with 4,619 surveyed. As a response to the findings, the MHF has recommended, among other things, that:
  • health and social care professionals should assess and address the psychological and other stressors experienced by people living with long-term physical health conditions
  • people presenting to a 'first point of contact' service in distress should receive a compassionate and trauma-informed response, regardless of where they live in the country
  • government and the Health & Safety Executive must ensure that employers treat physical and psychological hazards in the workplace equally and help employers recognise and address psychological hazards in the workplace under existing legislation
  • governments across the UK should introduce a minimum of two mental health days for every public-sector worker
  • mental health literacy should be a core competency in teacher training. This should be combined with rolling out mental health literacy support for pupils in schools across the UK to embed a 'whole-school approach' to mental health and wellbeing

The role of stress

One of the key findings in the report was that 74% of adults have been overwhelmed by stress in the past year. MHF director Isabella Goldie said: ‘Millions of us around the UK are experiencing high levels of stress and it is damaging our health. Stress is one of the great public health challenges of our time, but it still isn’t being taken as seriously as physical health concerns.

Individually we need to understand what is causing us personal stress and learn what steps we can take to reduce it for ourselves and those around us’.

How are employers working to reduce stress?

Fudia Smartt says that what employers are doing in the workplace to reduce stress varies from organisation to organisation: ‘ACAS, Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and MIND all have guidance for employers on addressing mental health in the workplace.

With the focus on employee engagement and an embracing of the concept of agile working, employers are probably more inclined then before to consider wellbeing in the workplace, particularly when seeking to hire and retain millennials.’

Some employers, Smartt argues, have sought to change their offices to improve happiness in the workplace—from changing the lighting system to ensure it is less glaring to creating a sociable space in the office to encourage staff to engage with colleagues.

Some organisations have introduced more flexibility towards working hours and regularly encourage staff to work from home when necessary. Other employers have introduced free fruit and healthy snacks in the hope that good nutrition will assist while others have provided free or subsidised fitness classes in the workplace, in addition to gym memberships to help in this regard.

Smartt says she is unclear on whether the abovementioned examples assist with mental health issues in the workplace, but, to address mental health issues in the workplace, employers need to engage in a dialogue with their employees to understand what issues they are facing.

What is clear is that employees need to be able to discuss mental health concerns without a fear of jeopardising their careers.’

How should employment law change?

Fudia Smartt suggests employers have both statutory and common law obligations to take steps to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees while at work. For example, Smartt says, under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, SI 1999/3242, employers are obliged to:

  • undertake ‘suitable and sufficient’ assessments of the health and safety risks to which employees are exposed at work
  • implement measures to address the risks identified from the assessments carried out
  • provide ‘comprehensible and relevant information’ to employees about the risks to their health and safety at work

Smartt says: ‘Arguably, the law already has suitable provisions in place for employers to address mental health issues, as it draws no distinction between physical or mental health risks posed to employees in the workplace.’

Smartt also suggested that perhaps what needs to change is the enforcement mechanism under the existing statutory health and safety laws: ‘Currently, the health and safety legislation we have in place does not enable an employee to sue their employer directly for damages for non-compliance. The HSE determines which employers to commence enforcement action against and the penalties levelled on employers by the HSE are criminal sanctions.’

Given that such claims need to meet the criminal burden of proof of beyond reasonable doubt, Smartt says, such claims will be more difficult to successfully prosecute than if a civil burden of proof (balance of probabilities) applied.

‘I also suspect,’ Smartt continues, ‘that not many employees actually report health and safety concerns to the HSE for it to be fully aware of issues in workplaces.’

Smartt says that attitudes towards mental health in the workplace might change if, for example, employees could sue their employers directly for failing to consider the mental as well as physical risks exposed to employees at work.

This is particularly true, Smartt argues, given that succeeding in personal injury claims arising from stress in the workplace or disability discrimination claims can be particularly difficult.  To this end, Smartt also comments that the judicial approach towards personal injury claims and mental health needs to change to offer greater parity in approach regarding how physical and mental injuries are dealt with.

What are the chances of radical change?

Smartt wonders, if any of the above were to occur, whether the UK would make radical changes such as adopting a right to disconnect law similar to that in France (eg, the right not to engage in work-related e-mails or messages during non-work hours) to minimise the mental health risks associated with working in an ever-connected world.

Given the constant reporting of stress in the workplace being at epidemic levels, Smartt says, ‘it is clear that the status quo cannot continue and action needs to be taken sooner rather than later.’

Further Reading

What are the best resources for lawyers seeking help?

Some helpful resources for lawyers include:

  1. LawCare helpline 0800 279 6888
  2. LawCare partnerships
  3. The Bar Council—‘Wellbeing at the Bar’
Filed Under: Practice of Law

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