HSE Mental Health Awareness Week

Posted on May 22, 2024
Posted by Marion Kennedy

Last week was Mental Health Awareness Week, a campaign run annually by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). It’s a timely reminder to review your processes around supporting staff mental health, and this blog outlines what steps you can take to support your staff while ensuring you comply with your legal obligations. 

Legal requirements for employers

As an employer, you are required by law to take reasonable steps to prevent work-related stress. Failing to do so could result in a negative working environment, decreased productivity, increased absences, high staff turnover and potential legal issues.

When carrying out risk assessments, make sure you consider the risks to the mental health of your staff – including disabled staff – and customers. Our template risk assessments suggest ways to consider and reduce these types of risks. 

How to reduce the risk to staff of work-related mental health problems

The following steps can help you reduce the risk of work-related stress.

  • Workload management: make sure your staff are not overworked and either consult them about or give them control over the pace of their work, including break times.
  • Support systems: ensure that staff are supported by their managers, their peers and the organisation as a whole, and that they know this support is available and how to access it.
  • Clarity and feedback: make sure staff have a clear understanding of their role and give regular, constructive feedback to help staff develop.
  • Workplace policies: establish policies and procedures for dealing with negative behaviours, like bullying, and ensure that they are enforced.
  • Communication about changes: keep staff informed about when, how and why you are making changes to your business that will affect them, so that they are not surprised by unexpected change.
  • Check-ins: have informal discussions with staff to assess their mood and talk through how they approach their tasks.
  • Further support: consider how else you might support your employees’ mental health. Providing access to counselling, therapy pets, (discounted) gym memberships, or mindfulness resources may help to prevent stress and mental health issues.

Considering the mental health of remote workers

Remote workers face unique challenges, such as isolation. Here are steps to support them.

  • Regular office visits: encourage remote workers to come in regularly (eg once a week) so they can stay up to date with the business and keep in touch with other staff.
  • Inclusion in social events: remember to include them in work social events to tackle feelings of isolation.
  • IT support: provide helplines for IT support or equipment breakdown.
  • Communication: set up proper systems to keep in contact with remote staff during the day (eg phone, email, instant messaging, video conferencing, online discussion forums) and check in with them regularly.

Managing absences due to poor mental health

Employees are entitled to be absent from work when they are ill, including for mental health reasons. Employers have obligations to ensure proper rest and recovery for ill employees, including the below.

  • Contracts: Employers must ensure that provisions about entitlement to sick pay and leave are set out in employees’ and casual workers’ contracts.
  • Procedure: Employers must follow an appropriate procedure when they become aware that a staff member is absent because of sickness.
  • Sick pay: Employers must pay those staff members who are entitled to sick pay during their sickness absence.
  • Return to work: In appropriate cases, employers must follow a return-to-work procedure once the member of staff returns.
  • Fair treatment: Employers must deal fairly with staff who are frequently sick or who are on long-term sick leave.
  • Reasonable adjustments: Employers must consider reasonable adjustments for staff members who have a disability to enable them to continue working. Note that many mental health conditions (including depression, anxiety, PTSD, OCD, eating disorders) can amount to disability in many circumstances.

Note that an ill staff member is not necessarily required to stay at home throughout their period of illness. Travelling to see a doctor, going to a hospital, seeing a relative for care or even taking a short holiday to deal with stress can all be legitimate.

Making reasonable adjustments for staff with disabilities 

If you think there may be a health issue underlying a staff member’s poor performance, you should consider whether the member of staff has a disability. Disabilities are conditions that have a substantial and long-term effect on an individual’s ability to carry out their day-to-day activities. See List of common disabilities for conditions that usually count as disabilities.

If a staff member does have a disability, you have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to their working conditions in order to enable them to do their job. This might include altering their duties. If you simply discipline or even dismiss a disabled person without considering what adjustments you could put in place, you could face a claim for disability discrimination.

Disciplinary action and mental health issues – a last resort 

Where staff members consistently take unacceptable levels of sickness absence due to work-related stress, further action may be needed. 

If a staff member is consistently absent or late and you genuinely cannot put reasonable adjustments in place, or if those you have tried are not working, dismissal may be considered as a last resort. See our Q&A for more information.

Discrimination claims can be very costly and time-consuming, and claimants are often awarded substantial damages. For example, if your disciplinary procedure results in a dismissal causing an employee to lose their full pension rights, you may have to compensate them for their entire loss. It is therefore crucial that you handle a dismissal involving a disabled employee carefully and seek legal advice if you are unsure. For access to a specialist lawyer in a few simple steps, you can use our Ask a Lawyer service. 

The content in this article is up to date at the date of publishing. The information provided is intended only for information purposes, and is not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Sparqa Legal’s Terms of Use apply.