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Mental Health Awareness Week; what employers need to know

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Mental Health Awareness Week was in May, and served as an opportunity for employers to revisit current practices and confirm if their policy and culture matched up to best practice.  The taboo of talking about mental health has started to shift, following several high-profile campaigns, but many employers are keeping quiet and avoiding conversations with staff, even though they have legal responsibilities and it has been shown to improve the bottom line. Howard Robson, Partner in the Employment department, explains here the responsibilities of employers and how having robust policies can support them when managing a person with poor mental health.

According to the Health & Safety Executive, over 11 million working days are lost each year, because of stress in the workplace.  Research among workers by MIND, the mental health charity, found that a continuing culture of fear and silence around the topic was adding up to a big cost to employers, with over 20% reporting they had called in sick to avoid workplace stress, and 30% saying they did not feel they would be able to speak openly with their line manager about the issue. 

Such figures highlight the need for companies to have strategies focused on mental health as part of employee wellbeing, to tackle stress-related absence and to avoid potential complaints or even litigation from staff. 

Employers and mental health

Employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress at work by undertaking a risk assessment and acting on it.   Where an employee is suffering from a mental health condition which has a long-term effect on day to day activity, this may be classed as a disability, requiring the employer to take positive action under the Equality Act 2010.  The Equality Act makes it unlawful for an employer to treat a disabled person less favourably because of their disability, without a justifiable reason.

It is also important that employers know about any medication being taken if it may affect an employee’s ability to undertake tasks or operate machinery.  This requires an open culture, and clear routes for employees to raise such matters. 

Employers need to have clearly stated policies that are reflected in the company’s culture, so that a manager who notices a change in personality, evidence of low mood or periods of increased absence, will feel equipped to enquire if any workplace support is needed.  It needs to happen in a supportive environment where the employee feels comfortable in opening up and asking for help, if needed.

“It is important to avoid an atmosphere where an employee feels that raising the issue of mental health may affect their future prospects, or that they will feel stigmatised by asking for help.  Unwillingness to talk can make for a difficult position for employers.

Mental health and disability discrimination

Such difficulties have been highlighted in disability discrimination claims that have reached the Court of Appeal.  One involved a former employee of Newport City Council, who had been off work on three separate occasions for stress-related illness and depression.  Finally, the Council asked an occupational health advisor for an opinion on whether the employee was fit for work. The opinion given was that he was not a candidate for ill-health retirement and that he was not disabled for discrimination purposes. When he was subsequently dismissed following allegations of bullying, he brought a claim of disability discrimination.  The Council commented that it relied upon the opinion of an occupational health expert, but the Court of Appeal stated that an employer must make a factual judgement and cannot “simply rubber stamp the adviser’s opinion”. 

This need to look more carefully was reflected in another recent case, involving an employee who was resistant to discussing her health issues and would not allow contact with her GP.  In this case, the Court of Appeal found in favour of her employer, Liberata UK Ltd, because the company did all it could “reasonably be expected to have done”.  Liberata UK Ltd did not rely solely upon occupational health advice, but reviewed it in the light of their own experience and impressions of the employee, and undertook its own further investigations. 

In creating and maintaining a culture of wellbeing, an employer should start from a perspective of how best to provide everyone with responsible support and protection from unfair or discriminatory treatment and should reflect that in processes and practice.  If anyone has issues that impact on how they may perform a particular function, whether related to physical or mental health,  then it is important to look at how to introduce reasonable adjustments to enable them to fulfil the role.

For more information on how you can support your employees with their mental health, you can contact Howard or a member of the Employment team on 02380 717717 or email


Resources for use in the workplace for Mental Health Awareness Week

Gallop v Newport City Council [2013] EWCA Civ 1583

Donelien v Liberata UK Ltd [2018] EWCA Civ 129

This is for information purposes only and is no substitute for, and should not be interpreted as, legal advice.  All content was correct at the time of publishing and we cannot be held responsible for any changes that may invalidate this article.