Mental health issues at work are becoming increasingly common. However, employers are still not taking the steps necessary to support good mental health amongst their employees and they often treat individuals who have mental health problems badly, sometimes amounting to discrimination.
In this guide, we consider what mental health in the workplace means, how employers can better support employees with mental health problems and what your rights are if you are a victim of mental health discrimination at work.
What is mental health?
Mental health is “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community” (World Health Organisation – WHO)
Mental health at work
The WHO definition above suggests that, in order to achieve and maintain good mental health in your workplace, your job role and work environment should ideally enable you
- to achieve your potential in your work role
- to cope with the stresses normally associated with your work role
- to achieve the outcomes expected of you in a positive manner (ie ‘fruitfully’).
It follows that, if there are barriers at work that prevent you from achieving the above, then those barriers may also adversely affect your mental well-being as a result.
Support for mental health at work
The World Health Organisation definition is good on ideals about mental health generally. However, when it comes to the workplace, it’s largely up to individual organisations to develop their own policies and practices that foster and maintain good mental health.
You as an employee may well say that it’s all down to your employer to do this kind of thing. However, we would argue that upward pressure on your employer from you and your employee colleagues can be equally, if not more effective in getting something done to support mental health
There are two main ways in which this can be done: the first is by developing existing policies and practices and the second is by initiating new (or newer) practices which specifically target mental health, as follows:
Developing existing policies and practices for mental health
A lot of the policies and practices that good employers are adopting in support of mental health are often good HR and management practices that have been around for years, but with greater emphasis on mental health than in the past. For example:
- Onboarding programs for new recruits whereby existing employees are identified and assigned to give you individual personal support as well as introducing you to your job role
- Regular individual career review and development programs where the focus is more on improving your strengths and constructively helping you overcome shortcomings, rather than on just criticising you for your inadequacies.
- Staff training where the needs are identified by your line manager in consultation with you and your work mentor (if you have one) and which address not only professional needs but also personal ones.
- Plenty of incentives to perform well with greater emphasis on realistic goal-setting and ‘carrots’ (encouragements) rather than on ‘sticks’ (threats) to do well.
Initiating new workplace policies and practices to support mental health
In addition to developing existing management and HR practices such as the above, employers who particularly want to support their employees’ mental well being are also placing greater emphasis on developing schemes designed particularly for that purpose, such as:
- Developing mental health policies and practices across the organisation
Promoting a healthier work-life balance by such means as flexible working
- Well-being initiatives like health club membership and/or subsidised access to activities designed to promote relaxation techniques such as yoga and meditation.
- Employee-support schemes, such as mentoring and peer review designed specifically to support both professional and mental health development.
- Providing access to mental health self-awareness and training programs, either in-house or externally.
What are mental ill health and mental health issues?
Mental ill health and mental health issues or problems are terms that are often used interchangeably. In a work environment, they are generally taken to refer to conditions that adversely affect your mental health to the extent that you can’t carry out your job role as you did before you developed the condition.
Mental health problems are one of the most challenging employment issues of recent times. They are also on the increase, with at least 1 in 4 people experiencing a mental health issue of some kind in this country every year. (See report by Mind – the national organisation for improving mental health.)
Mental health conditions can take many forms, ranging from the more commonly experienced ones such as anxiety, stress and depression, through eating disorders and addictive behaviours such as alcoholism and drug abuse, to less common ones such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
See our examples of how stress and depression have led to mental health issues at work.
Have your mental health problems affected your work?
Some individuals enter their employment with mental health issues already, whilst others develop them when they have been in their employment for some time. The health issues may or may not be a direct result of the work role and/or environment.
Your employer may also not be aware that you have mental health issues if the issues are not affecting your attendance, work performance, behaviour or other work-related activity.
It’s only when mental health issues start to affect your attendance, performance or behaviour that your employer may become aware that something’s wrong and may start to suspect that you have a mental health problem.
By this time, you may decide to tell your employers about your mental health problems or they may find out from GP or other medical evidence associated with sick leave absences.
Are you being discriminated against for your mental health problems?
When your employers find out that you have a mental health problem, that’s also the time when they might start to discriminate against you because of the problem.
You may become aware that you are a victim of mental health discrimination at work when you realise that you are being treated badly, or treated less favourably than others in a similar role to yours but who don’t have a mental health condition.
See below for further discussion.
Does the Equality Act protect employees with mental health problems?
If your mental health problem is categorised as a disability, then disability discrimination legislation protects you in the workplace.
A disability is defined by the Equality Act 2010 as ‘a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on your ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.’
- ‘Substantial’: Examples of what counts as substantial would include a condition that frequently stopped you from focusing on a task for any length of time, or took you longer to do than someone without an impairment.
- ‘Long-term‘ means that your condition lasted or is likely to last for 12 months or longer.
- ‘Normal day-to-day activities would include such acts as your ability to interact with other people, to follow instructions or to keep to agreed working times.
If your employer discriminates against you when your mental health condition counts as a disability, then you are likely to have a valid claim against them.
Does your employer’s ‘duty of care’ cover employees with mental health problems?
Yes, your employer’s duty of care does extend to employees with mental health problems.
There is a legal requirement placed upon employers to take all reasonable steps to support the health, safety and wellbeing of their employees. In practice, this means that the work environment and working practices should support good mental health amongst employees, and also support employees who have mental health problems.
If your employer doesn’t support you in this way, they may have failed in their legal duty of care to you and you may well have a claim against them instead of or in addition to a disability discrimination claim.
If you are being treated badly or suffering from mental health discrimination at work and if you have the evidence to support such bad treatment, then you may well be able to claim compensation from your employer.
- Your claim might best be settled by way of a settlement agreement where you would normally leave your employment with financial and other compensation.
- Alternatively, if your employer won’t settle, then you may be able to make an employment tribunal claim. For further detail, see our introductory guide to tribunals and our separate guide taking you step by step through your employment claim.
Whichever route you decide to follow, Monaco Solicitors is well placed to help you. We are employment law specialists who only represent employees and have an excellent record of success in dealing with cases where employees are being badly treated by their employers because of their mental health issues.
If you would like to talk to our friendly team about ways in which we can help you, please contact us: