What are the laws around mental health and how can employers ensure best practice?

World Mental Health Day drew to a close this week, but the discussion surrounding wellbeing in the workplace is one that should not depend on dates in a calendar to be raised.

According to a 2017 survey from Business in the Community on the mental health of the British workforce, three out of five employees have experienced mental health issues in the past year because of work. What’s more, findings within their report revealed almost a third of the workforce were formally diagnosed with a mental health issue in 2016. The most common diagnosis was depression or general anxiety.

While it can’t be denied that progress has been made to remove the stigma surrounding mental health, it’s clear we still have far to go in breaking down the barriers that prevent people from voicing their issues and speaking up when stress starts to affect their health.

Suffering in silence

If only the conversation surrounding mental health were easier to raise. As it stands, few employees are comfortable discussing these personal issues with their managers for fear of seeming unprofessional.

But is it any surprise? In a recent study, it was revealed that 15 per cent of employees who disclosed a mental health issue face disciplinary procedures, demotion or dismissal. With this in mind, it’s not hard to see why only a third of 18 to 29-year olds are comfortable talking to their manager about mental health issues compared to almost half of people in their 40s.

While many of us would feel perfectly justified taking a day or two off for a physical condition, the simple truth is that most managers would not tolerate their staff phoning in sick for psychological illnesses, even if these prevented the employee from performing to the best of their ability.

How does the law protect employees?

The Equality Act 2010 protects employees with disabilities from being put at a disadvantage in the workplace. This includes workers suffering from a mental health condition, ensuring that these employees are treated fairly when applying for a new role, seeking a promotion and in their general day-to-day working life.

The Act further protects an employee from being relieved from their duties due to their mental health issues. In certain cases, an employer may be asked to make reasonable adjustments within the workplace to ensure employees are able to do their job irrespective of any psychological issues they may be dealing with.

Creating a better workplace culture

For employers, adhering to the law to prevent discrimination in the workplace should be a given. However, beyond ‘reasonable adjustments’, business leaders should work to create a culture of acceptance and awareness throughout their organisation. It’s one thing to celebrate World Mental Health Day, but it’s another to promote open discussion in the workplace.

Encouraging employees to speak to their managers about their mental health often requires a revision of policies and an active effort to change the culture within the workplace. After all, if your employee handbook has no mention of mental health, it’s unlikely your employees will feel able to admit their issues to their manager to discuss potential arrangements. Similarly, if those who suffer are made to feel judged by their peers or on thin ice with their managers due to their condition, you’ll likely notice a stark drop in productivity and staff morale.

Completely removing stigma surrounding mental health will take time, but simply speaking to your employees and ensuring they feel comfortable coming forward about sensitive matters such as these is a step in the right direction.