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Counting the Cost of Ignoring Mental Health at Work

In the past few years, there has been a significant rise in the awareness of mental health and its impact in the workplace. A number of high-profile campaigns have been launched encouraging employees to talk more about their mental health and reducing the stigma of doing so. Yet research published in May 2019 shows that only one-third of workers felt confident talking about common mental health issues such as stress and depression.

Posted: 31st May 2019 by Katina Hristova
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When combined with the news from the ‘Time to Change’  campaign that people would rather talk to colleagues about relationship issues, money problems and even sex, than discuss mental health, it seems that there still could be a stigma attached to talking about mental health at work.

In this article, Pam Loch and Bruce Jenner look at why employers need to be more proactive in addressing mental health issues in the workplace and discuss some simple steps that financial institutions and financial services firms can take to show their commitment to employee wellbeing.

Why should employers care?

The UK Government’s ‘Thriving at Work’ review showed that currently, 300,000 individuals leave employment each year as a result of mental health issues. This, in turn, is costing employers between £33bn to £42bn a year – a figure which equates to between £1,205 - £1,560 per employee. These costs are made up of the cost of covering absenteeism, the impact on productivity from presenteeism and from staff turnover. These are costs which are avoidable if mental health is managed more effectively before it becomes an issue.

The employer’s obligations

Under the Equality Act 2010, a mental health condition is considered to be a disability if it has a long term and adverse effect on an individual’s normal day-to-day activity. The Act places certain obligations on an employer to consider and make reasonable adjustments to ensure the individual is not discriminated against in the workplace.

Not explicitly knowing about a disability is not a defence against Employment Tribunal (ET) claims. In Baldeh V Churches Housing Associate of Dudley and District Ltd 2019, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) found that even though the employer did not know about Baldeh’s disability (depression) at the time of dismissal, they found out about it during her internal appeal. This did not impact the appeal outcome but rather resulted in the appeal being regarded as part of the unfavourable treatment she based her discrimination claim on. The EAT subsequently referred the case back to a fresh ET hearing to consider whether the rejection of the appeal was an act of discrimination.

There is also a risk that the ‘always-on’ culture in some organisations contributes to the stress and anxiety felt by individuals.

Even though an employer may not have an explicit notification of a disability, there may be other clues or evidence which gives them ‘constructive knowledge’ of a disability. If on the basis of these clues the employer could be reasonably expected to know about a disability, this will trigger their obligation to consider and make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010.

This demonstrates the importance of embedding a culture in the workplace where mental health conditions can be talked about in the same way as physical illnesses. Remember, employers are liable for the acts of discrimination of their staff, so the language or ‘banter’ within a workplace around someone’s mental health also puts employers at risk of successful claims of bullying or harassment.

There is also a risk that the ‘always-on’ culture in some organisations contributes to the stress and anxiety felt by individuals. Emails sent after hours or work-related WhatsApp messages sent over the weekend or on holidays not only have the potential to impact an individual’s mental health, but they could also put employers at risk of disputes around breaches of the Working Time Regulations 1998.

The benefits of looking after mental health in the workplace

 The ‘Thriving at Work’ review cites research conducted by Deloitte which demonstrates the returns to employers who invest in mental health in the workplace. The average return for every pound spent was £4.20, with figures between 40p to £9. This demonstrates an overwhelmingly positive outcome for employers who invest in supporting the mental health of their workforce.

This return can be seen in the costs associated with absenteeism, presenteeism, and staff turnover. Supporting mental health in the workplace means fewer employees end up taking days off work, and a reduced absenteeism rate. The flip side is presenteeism – where employees turn up to work despite being unwell for fear of being labelled or judged by colleagues. These employees are not functioning at full capacity and the lost productivity costs businesses £4,048 annually.

There is also a well-documented connection between physical and mental health, so looking after the mental health of your staff will make them less likely to suffer physical ill health.

Supporting mental health in the workplace means fewer employees end up taking days off work, and a reduced absenteeism rate.

What options do employers have to support mental health

The first step employers need to take is to ensure there is a culture which enables staff to talk about and report mental health issues. Mental Health First Aid training is an accredited training course which gives employees the skills to identify the signs of mental health issues and help colleagues find the right support. This training has been shown to increase the overall understanding of mental health in workplaces that have had the training.

The training can be backed up with a review of policies and procedures aimed at reducing the risk of discrimination occurring in the first place. An Equality and Diversity policy is key to setting out how disability is managed in the workplace, and the steps the organisation will take to help protect employees with a disability. This can be combined with an anti-bullying and harassment policy, and a specific wellbeing policy.

Employers’ policies may also include examples of the types of reasonable adjustments that could be made, and the process for employees to request these. This can include flexible working or working from home, providing quiet spaces away from noise and activity, or altered start/finish times. Employers also need to ensure social media policies cover the use of informal messaging apps, and the language and behaviour expected when communicating via these channels.

Organisations that embed a culture of openness towards mental health will benefit from fewer disputes and claims against them as well as reduced instances of absence and ill-health.

Given the close connection between physical and mental health, employers should also consider a programme that promotes overall wellbeing. This can include benefits like Wellness Checks to allow individuals a check of their health across multiple risk factors, Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) which offer 24hr phone line support, providing healthy food options in staff canteens, and offering access to sports clubs after work at discounted rates.

This can be combined with an internal communications programme which signposts employees to support services such as an EAP or external organisations such as the Samaritans, encouraging employees to take adequate breaks and to talk about mental health openly with their managers.

Employers can also use staff surveys to engage with their staff around wellbeing, gaining useful insight into the attitudes and levels of engagement from staff. These surveys can allow employers to spot trends which may be affecting the mental health of the workforce and take action before it leads to increased absences from work.

These simple and relatively inexpensive steps will not only prove to the staff that the organisation takes mental health seriously, but will also provide a financial benefit for those businesses that invest in.

Organisations that embed a culture of openness towards mental health will benefit from fewer disputes and claims against them as well as reduced instances of absence and ill-health. They will also see a more engaged workforce, and ultimately improved productivity from their staff. It will also make such companies more attractive to potential new recruits.

It is no longer a question of whether a business can afford to support mental health at work, they can’t afford not to.

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