The issue of mental health can be a very difficult one for employers to deal with, but it is one that should not be ignored. According to the Health & Safety Executive, in 2016/17 12.5 million days were lost to stress and other mental health issues equating to 526,000 people believed to be suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety, a figure compounded by the Stevenson & Farmer Thriving at Work report, which suggested that poor mental health could be costing the UK economy more than £99 billion per year.

In late-2017 the Health & Safety Executive announced that stress across the UK workforce had risen to become the most common work place illness.

The Investors in People launched its Managing Mental Health Report in April of this year and found that the greatest pressure felt by workers was workload, with 40% claiming that having too much on their agenda resulted in stress. The survey also revealed that a significant proportion of the labour market would feel that their mental health would be better supported at work if their organisation were to provide more training for line managers.

Aside from issues of productivity, employers have a duty of care to their employees.  Whilst there may be an underlying cause of an employee's mental ill health that lies outside the workplace, do not assume that this is the case and do nothing. It is therefore vitally important that employers get to grips with mental health in the workplace as recent case law has shown that many employers are still failing to understand their responsibilities and falling below the standard of care expected.  Mental health does not relate to one specific illness, but covers all aspects of emotional well-being, mental health conditions and mental illnesses.

In the same way as physical health fluctuates, so can mental health.  Everyone’s experience of mental health is different as each person is different so will be unique to them.  In some cases employers will be legally obliged to take certain steps if the employee meets the legal definition of disability under the Equality Act 2010.

With today’s consumer demands and various form of direct contact, many workers in the UK work long hours and suffer stress as a result.

Employers have to be careful not to breach the Working Time Regulations with regards to hours worked and rest breaks allowed, this will be taken into account when deciding if psychiatric injury was reasonably foreseeable for the purposes of a damages in a claim for stress. Failing to take reasonable steps to prevent an overworked employee's breakdown by refusing to respond to signs that they are struggling to cope is a breach of the duty of care owed to the employee by the employer. Bullying can cause psychiatric damage and an employer can be held vicariously liable if an employee suffers a stress-related illness as a result of being bullied by another employee and the employer is found to be in breach of its duty of care.

In spite of the disruption that mental health problems can cause in the workplace and the legal duties that reside with the employer regarding the health and safety of employees, many companies do not have a formal policy in place for dealing with stress and mental health illnesses at work nor do they know enough about their legal position and obligations with regards mental health in the workplace.

There is useful guidance on dealing with this issue on a general level on the Health and Safety Executive's website at http://www.hse.gov.uk/stress/. In addition, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration service has developed a new mental health framework for employers, employees and line managers http://www.acas.org.uk/index.aspx?articleid=1900.  Also the Mental Health Foundation has published a guide to assist with supporting mental health at work https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/how-support-mental-health-work

For help and advice please contact Emma-Louise Hewitt, e.hewitt@sydneymitchell.co.uk on 0808 166 8827.

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