Mental Health and Employers

Guest Blog from Charlie Thompson, associate in the employment team at law firm Harbottle & Lewis


A recent government review of mental health and employers, Thriving at Work, reveals that “15% of people at work have symptoms of an existing mental health condition” and “300,000 people with a long term mental health condition leave employment every year, equivalent of the whole population of Newcastle or Belfast”.

It is not clear whether these figures represent an increase in mental illness itself or an increase in diagnoses of mental illness, but the practical reality is that Employers which fail to adequately address this issue are at risk of not only losing precious talent but also facing high value disability discrimination and personal injury claims.


In response to this, many employers implement a number of measures such as occupational health advice, confidential helplines and wellbeing perks, in order to meet their duties. Whilst these measures can help an employer to defend a claim, they will not necessarily deal with one of the underlying causes of mental illness – workplace stress.


Intense pressure, excessive working hours and systematic disruption to circadian rhythm can have a negative impact on one’s mental health, and it can be no surprise that, particularly in organisations with a deeply-engrained culture of long-hours or presenteeism, that employees become unwell.


Whilst conventional wellbeing measures are laudable in their aims, many of them only come into play once a breakdown has occurred, when, all too often, the damage has already been done both to the employee’s health and to the employment relationship. In its Mental Health at Work Report 2017, Mental Health First Aid England reported that 15% of employees (1.2 million people) face dismissal, disciplinary action or demotion after raising a mental health issue at work.


Above all, many conventional measures do not address the common problem where, for whatever reason, an ambitious and hard-working employee insists on working themselves into the ground.


Thriving at Work provides some useful guidance, setting out six core mental health standards which should be implemented by all employers, regardless of “workplace type, industry or size”:


– Produce, implement and communicate a mental health work plan.

– Develop mental health awareness among employees.

– Encourage open conversations about mental health and the support available when employees are struggling.

– Provide employees with good working conditions.


– Promote effective people management.

– Routinely monitor employee mental health and wellbeing.


Some practical steps that employers and HR can take to help achieve these core standards include:


– Proactively monitoring working hours and taking appropriate action when dangerous levels are reached, such as automatically being given time off;

– Appropriately organising and resourcing teams in order to mitigate the risk of overwork;

– Training staff in spotting warning signs of stress and mental illness, such as becoming withdrawn, skipping meals and breaks, or spending excessive time in the office (less than a quarter of managers have received training in mental health, according to the Mental Health at Work Report 2017);

– Reviewing staff absences and conducting back-to-work interviews to identify stress-related absences;

– Ensuring greater senior management support is given to HR departments so they can step in where employees, prepared to work themselves to the bone, are being taken advantage of (perhaps unwittingly) by line managers;

– Implementing (and enforcing) a policy on stress at work so managers and supervisors are clear on what their role is in dealing with work-related stress, and employees know that the organisation is taking the issue seriously;

– Ensuring that technology is making work less stressful for employees rather than more so – for example, some employers might wish to implement policies which discourage or limit remote access to email after a certain time each day; and

– Conducting a confidential and anonymous stress survey, in an attempt to gauge how much of the workforce is suffering in silence.


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