Mental health issues in the workplace

5 January, 2016
by: Cripps Pemberton Greenish

Even though stress-related absences from work are increasing every year, discussing mental health issues is still somewhat of a ‘taboo’ subject in the workplace. Recent figures suggest that at least one in four of us will suffer from a mental health condition at some point. Stress is now the most common cause of both long and short term sickness absences. This is no longer something employers can ignore.


It is important that employers understand their obligations to protect their employees’ mental health and what further obligations fall on them if one of their employees suffers from poor mental health.


A duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of all employees

Ensuring that you provide your employees with a safe working environment covers both the physical and mental aspects of a job. It is just as important to ensure that an employee is not put under undue pressure as it is to make sure there are no wires they may trip over.


This involves undertaking risk assessments and reviewing and acting on the results. When assessing whether an employee may be at risk of suffering from work-related stress it is important to look at the demands of the employee’s job and the support the employee is offered in their role.


As well as risk assessments, you could undertake an employee satisfaction survey or analyse your sickness absence data to identify potential areas of risk.


A duty of care

In order to avoid a negligence claim, employers need to take action to protect their employees when harm to an employee’s health is foreseeable. In considering this, employers should take account of excessive workloads, unreasonable working conditions, the demands of the job and signs of stress.


Obligation not to discriminate

It is unlawful to discriminate against disabled employees. A disability can be a physical or mental health condition. An employee who has a mental impairment that adversely affects their ability to carry out normal day to day activities could be ‘disabled’. The effect of the mental impairment needs to be substantial and long term (e.g. likely to last for 12 months or more). You need to be careful not to discriminate against any disabled employees, for example, by offering them less favourable terms or harassing them.


A duty to make reasonable adjustments

If one of your employees is disabled, you have an additional duty to make reasonable adjustments to assist them to do their job. The adjustments required will depend on the employee’s circumstances. If an employee is suffering from a mental health condition, a reasonable adjustment could be offering them additional breaks or changing their shifts.


Increasing awareness of mental health issues is an important first step towards breaking the silence around mental health. There are also many ways that employers can reduce stress in the workplace. Examples include:

  • Training managers to look out for signs of stress and to manage workloads;
  • Introducing a wellbeing and counselling service;
  • Offering a reduced gym membership;
  • Organising a weekly social activity i.e. a mid-week walk during the lunch hour;
  • Providing a space in the office where employees can relax; and
  • Offering flexible working.


Based on recent figures some of your employees will already be suffering from mental health issues. This is not something that you can afford to ignore. Take the time now to assess the potential risks your business faces and make 2016 the year in which you tackle mental health issues.