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The laws around mental health at work, and how you can protect your Employees

Kate Allen, Managing Director, Allen Associates

Most businesses would agree that their Employees are their most valuable asset. Yet, a large portion of leaders from the very same businesses likely couldn’t answer if asked about the wellbeing of their staff and the impact on productivity.

But mental health issues are more prevalent than you might think. In fact, according to recent figures, approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. In England alone, 1 in 6 people report experiencing feelings of anxiety and depression in any given week.

They may be invisible illnesses, but due to a lack of awareness or understanding in the workplace, the majority of those suffering fail to speak out for fear of the potential repercussions. While the Equality Act aims to protect those with mental health problems from discrimination at work, it’s clear that more could be done to prevent Employees from feeling at a disadvantage due to their illness. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to improve the situation:

Making mental wellbeing a priority at work

If a member of staff is struggling with mental illness, they will be unable to perform to the best of their ability: naturally, their work and productivity will suffer the longer the issue goes untreated and unaddressed. Strictly from a business standpoint, the health of your workforce should be a priority; you should be working to reduce the number of absences and length of time off taken by offering flexibility to staff and ensuring they feel comfortable enough to speak to management about their issues if they feel overwhelmed.

It simply isn’t enough to send a staff-wide email to check up on your Employees: if you want to protect your staff in the workplace, you should ensure they have the support network they need from management, senior leaders or HR at the very least. Care for your Employees and you will naturally reap the benefits of a happier and more engaged workforce.

Promoting equal opportunities

The Equality Act 2010 applies to all UK Employers, and aims to prevent Employees with a disability from being discriminated against or treated unfairly as a result. The law states that it is wrong for any Employee to be treated unfavourably where this is linked to disability, and adjustments should be made to ensure equal opportunities for all members of staff.

Of course, the very nature of mental health issues means it’s often necessary for Employees to alert their managers of their illness: in doing so, they hope to receive protection from the law, but what they often get instead is unconscious bias in promotion decisions, acting as a barrier to their career success.

Instead of solely looking to those who have not indicated an issue, managers should focus on promoting the well-being of all their staff and build more flexibility into roles in order to allow for less stress and more productivity. After all, it’s not always easy to tell who is suffering in silence.

Providing ongoing training

Whether for fear of being discriminated against or overlooked for a potential promotion in future, it’s not easy to speak up if the culture is not accepting or understanding of what it means to suffer from depression, anxiety or other, less common mental health issues. For many organisations, mental health is still the elephant in the room that nobody wants to address.

While ongoing training for all staff on this critical issue can be helpful, educating managers is the first step in improving Employee well-being. Managers should be the first port of call for a staff member in need of support; they are in a unique position to spot when something isn’t right with someone in their team. With the right capabilities, they will have more confidence to handle sensitive conversations and work with Employees to determine a plan of action to reduce their stress.

While some Employers are taking steps to remove the stigma surrounding mental health, we still have far to go as a nation in tackling discrimination and encouraging conversations at work. Laws may exist to prevent unfair treatment, but it’s the action an Employer takes to enforce these principles in the workplace that truly promotes change.

Over the last 20 years, we have grown as a business to become one of the leading independent recruitment agencies in Oxfordshire, and in 2018 have opened our first London office, to service Clients in the capital.

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