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Mental health at work – recommended core standards for employers

Posted on 18 December 2017 by Åsa Waring

Mental health at work – recommended core standards for employers

According to a recent government commissioned independent review, the UK is facing a significant mental health challenge at work. We know that work can have a beneficial impact on mental health and wellbeing. However, increased demands in the workplace, excessive working hours, heavy workloads and an uncertain economy can bring pressures on staff leading to or exacerbating poor mental health. This in turn brings challenges for employers on how best to manage mental health in the workplace. Leaving aside employers' existing duties in relation to mental health conditions that amount to a disability - and the fact that managing mental health positively is the right thing to do - research from Deloitte forming part of the review has shown that, from a purely financial point of view, it is well worth rising to the challenge. Poor mental health in the workplace cost employers between £33 billion and £42 billion annually in lost productivity, sickness absence and staff turnover. And where employers make investments in improving mental health, analysis shows a consistently positive return on investment. With an estimated 15 percent of people at work having symptoms of an existing mental health condition and one in four of us estimated to suffer from a mental health problem at some point in our lives, the impact cannot be underestimated. 

The review, published on 25 October 2017 under the title Thriving at Work, was commissioned by the government to look into how employers can better support the mental health of people in employment, including those with mental health problems or poor wellbeing. It sets out a number of core mental health standards that all employers are urged to adopt, recognising that the stigma surrounding mental health is a significant barrier to progress. We set out those standards below, but first, we take a brief look at an employer's duties in relation to mental health. 

First, an employer has a duty to take reasonable care of the health and safety of employees. This duty extends to mental health as well as physical health. The employer is obliged to take reasonable precautionary steps to prevent any injury to health. In addition, where an employee's (or job applicant's) mental health condition amounts to a disability, there is a legal duty to not treat that person unfavourably because of, or for a reason arising from, the disability - but also an absolute duty to make reasonable adjustments for that individual to remove or reduce any workplace disadvantage suffered as a result of their disability. What is a reasonable adjustment will depend on the circumstances but common adjustments include: varying working hours or place of work, providing additional support, allowing time off for treatment, transferring to a different role and making adjustments to workplace policies.

On a broader level, what can employers do to support the mental wellbeing of all its employees? The review sets out a framework of core standards and recommendations which its authors believe can be implemented by all employers (with large employers expected to do more), underpinned by increased employer transparency around mental health to help reduce the stigma.

Mental health at work plan: Employers should produce, implement and communicate a mental health at work plan which promotes good mental health and sets out the support available for all employees.

Awareness and open conversations: Employers should help develop mental health awareness among employees and encourage open conversations about mental health and the support available to employees when they are struggling. This will entail making information, tools and support accessible but can also include developing awareness through training and other communications.

Good working conditions: Good working conditions are essential to good mental health and employers should provide employees with good working conditions, ensure they have a healthy work life balance and opportunities for development. This also ties in with the overriding theme of "good work" explored in the Taylor report (we discuss the Taylor report here).

Effective management: Employers should promote good people management practices to enable employees to have conversations about their health and wellbeing with line managers and supervisors. This is likely to require both training and support for managers and supervisors so they in turn can support staff and facilitate openness.

Monitoring: Employers should also monitor employee mental health and wellbeing. It is suggested that this should be done routinely by understanding the available data, conducting surveys, talking to employees and understanding risk factors around mental health.

Ignoring mental health at work can be costly for employers, as well as hugely damaging for employees. Employers can play a crucial role in shaping a more open culture around mental health in the workplace while taking practical steps to support employees' mental wellbeing, and it is hoped that the review's recommendations will help employers do just that.