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Are You Supporting Your Employees’ Wellbeing?

As we emerge from lockdown many of us will know of a friend, relative, or work colleague who has struggled with the imposition of being forced to stay at home and in some instances to be required to work from home.

The scenarios range from those fortunate enough to have a dedicated space for working, such as a study, to those who used communal areas, such as the kitchen table, to the extreme of having to work in the bedroom or converted garden shed.

During that time there has been a need to juggle family life with working remotely. Both have brought their own stresses on how to cope with the dilemma of how much time to devote to what should be working time. Quite often the concern was that some employers struggled with trusting their employees to put in the hours they would usually work in the office. Equally, for the employee, it has raised issues of when to stop working during the day to evidence to their employer that they can be productive when working from home. In some cases, this has resulted in far greater hours of work being spent, referred to as “binge working”.

As an employer, you can help manage and prevent stress by improving conditions at work. As employers, you have a role in making adjustments and helping staff to manage other mental health issues at work.

Employers have a ‘duty of care’ towards their employees which includes all persons who may visit and work at their premises. This means they must do all they reasonably can to support their employees’ health, safety and wellbeing.

This includes:

  • making sure the working environment is safe
  • protecting staff from discrimination
  • carrying out risk assessments

By creating a supportive environment where employees feel able to talk openly about mental health, employers are complying with their duty of care. Issues around mental health are now considered as important as a physical ailment. It is no longer taboo to talk about how one is feeling with an acknowledgement from members of the royal family and members of parliament admitting to having suffered from poor mental health.

Every year the Mental Health Foundation has a Mental Health Awareness Week to promote the need for a better understanding of the issue. Treating mental and physical health equally along with the recognition that mental health can be as damaging to an employee as a physical ailment is very important.

Once an employer is aware of a mental health issue the Equality Act provisions are triggered. Mental health is about how we think, feel and behave. Anxiety and depression are the most common mental health problems which can be caused by work-related absences. This may fall into the bracket of being a protected characteristic if it is a mental impairment. The provisions of the Act will apply where the ill health:

  • has or is expected to last for a period of 12 months or more
  • affects an employee’s ability to do their normal day to activities, which could include interacting with other people
  • has a ‘substantial adverse effect’ on the life of an employee where for example, they may not be able to focus on a task, or it takes them longer to do.

The HSE advises employers that work-related mental health issues must be assessed to measure the levels of risk to staff. Where a risk is identified, steps must be taken to remove it or reduce it as far as reasonably practicable. An individual risk assessment should be carried out to ascertain what is required to assist the employee to be able to continue to work. The awareness of having a disability imposes a duty on the employer to make reasonable adjustments for that employee at work. This may be simple things such as staggering their start time and end of the working day to avoid travelling in the rush hour if crowds cause the employee to become anxious or panic. It may also extend to:

  • making sure employees have regular one-to-ones with their managers, to talk about any problems they’re having
  • encouraging positive mental health, by arranging mental health awareness training, workshops or appointing mental health ‘champions’ whom staff can talk to

Increasingly employers have engaged with providing a mental health wellness plan (MWAP) which helps to keep track of what does and does not work for each participating employee in maintaining mental wellness. It helps employers to create a guide to what is needed each day to maintain their employees’ mental health.

The HSE‘s Management Standards approach to tackling work-related stress establishes a framework to help employers tackle the negative impact of mental ill health. This includes promoting active discussion and involvement in risk assessments for work-related stress and helping employers focus on the causes leading to mental health.

Against the background of COVID, employers have to consider the opposing argument of forcing an employee’s return to work against arguments of working from home being safer and preferable. Section 44 Employment Rights Act 1996, has been relied on by trade unions representing their members during the pandemic to object to employees returning to the workplace where it is argued that they were in serious imminent danger, or where there is anxiety about travelling to, or being in, work during the coronavirus pandemic.

The way forward for employers is therefore to have a wider more inclusive strategy when dealing with members of staff by promoting positive mental health at work, including:

  • understanding mental health
  • creating a mental health strategy
  • educating the workforce.
  • promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour

To effectively implement the Management Standards approach, the organisation must have the resources, support and infrastructure for the project to be successfully run. 

If you would like to speak to a member of the Spire Employment team about improving the wellbeing of your employees’ or if you would like to discuss any points in this article, please contact us on 01603 677077.