The national Mental Health at Work 2018 Report found that one in three of the UK workforce have been formally diagnosed with a mental health condition at some point in their lifetime. The survey also found that 61% of employees have experienced mental health issues due to work or where work was a related factor.

However, there is also good news as 60% of employees feel their line manager is concerned for their wellbeing, an increase of 5% of the findings in the previous report. There was a similar increase when employees were asked if their organisation does well to support people with mental health issues, with 45% agreeing.

Ultimately the report tells us we have made huge strides to supporting good mental health and wellbeing in the workplace but there is more to be done.

The elephant in the room?

So, does this reflect what is happening in Cornwall? In my opinion, awareness of the issue has definitely improved, with some businesses doing a great deal to be more open about it and being very supportive of staff. An employer’s attitude often reflects whether they have personal experience of mental illness themselves or via friends and family. However, in many businesses mental health is still ‘the Elephant in the Room’ that is not talked about. Businesses are good at recognising and protecting physical health, but poorer at recognising and protecting mental health.

Smaller businesses (of which there are many in our area) struggle to know what to do and fear saying the wrong thing. They often feel they have little personal time or capacity within their business to support an employee with mental health issues.  They often strive to ‘treat everyone the same’, without realising that actually they have a legal responsibility to take positive action to support someone with mental health issues, particularly if the employee falls under the definition of having a disability under the Equality Act 2010. This can apply even if the employer feels the condition is not very serious: it can be hard to really know the impact mental health issues are having on a person and it’s easy to make assumptions that are not correct.

Take positive action

The positive action expected of employers includes: speaking to the employee regularly to understand how they are getting on and asking what can be done to support them;  getting regular  medical reports so you can understand the condition (usually via an occupational health doctor or the person treating them); making reasonable adjustments to their work or working environment to enable them to continue to work effectively;  and (having got their consent) educating those working alongside them about the condition so they are sensitive to the employee’s needs and possible limitations.

Employers also have to make sure that the employee is not treated adversely because of their condition or because of matters arising from their condition. For example, if a person is making mistakes at work, is falling out with staff or failing to follow instructions, employers should not give warnings or dismiss unless they have investigated and considered the impact of mental health issues first.

Supporting your workforce

Businesses can also take wider practical steps to support all of their staff. For example, ensuring there is enough time for regular catch ups with staff, training mangers to spot and deal with issues, preparing stress risk assessments and appointing their own mental health champion.

It does make business sense as well as legal sense.  Helping staff cope with mental health problems and continue to play their part at work will improve productivity, loyalty and retention of skilled and experienced employees.

Should employees try to be more honest and open about how they feel? This would certainly help. Telling your employer what the issue is and how you think you could be supported or what you need should help to start a positive discussion about this. You may find that they had no idea or were too afraid to intervene in what they felt was ‘private’. You can also ask them to keep this confidential so only those who have to know to help make changes, do know.

Mental health is important to everyone – whether it affects us or someone we know – and is something we should all take responsibility to address. Action is needed to reduce the stigma around mental health issues. That positive action can, and should, start in the workplace.

Chris Morse is a senior associate in the employment team at Stephens Scown. The team is recognised by independent guides to the legal profession Chambers and Legal 500. To contact Chris, please call 01872 265100, email [email protected] or visit www.stephens-scown.co.uk