A reminder of an employer’s legal responsibilities on mental health within the workplace

A healthy workforce increases a business’ performance, productivity and profitability and can help an employer retain staff. Despite the understandable focus of many employers on managing the effects of COVID-19, employers still have legal responsibilities to look after employees’ mental health, which are important to be aware of now more than ever.

Employer’s legal obligations

There is a common law duty of care on all employers for the safety of their employees. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 imposes a general duty on employers to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of all employees, with further duties imposed by the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, including to undertake risk assessments.

Under the Equality Act 2010 mental health can be defined as a disability and employers have a legal duty to not discriminate on these grounds and instead to make reasonable adjustments in the workplace. Such an adjustment could be changing an employee’s role to remove barriers and make things easier for them at work. Protection under the Equality Act also extends to those associated with a disabled person and those who are wrongly perceived to be disabled. If an employee successfully shows that their employer has discriminated against them, there is no limit on the amount of compensation that a tribunal can award.

Finally, an employer also has legal obligations when deciding to terminate the employment of someone with a mental illness. If the required steps are not taken, the employee may have an unfair dismissal claim. Furthermore, if an employer mishandles an employee’s mental health issue and the employee resigns as a result, they may also be able to pursue a constructive dismissal claim. 

Employers obligations amid COVID-19

None of the above legal obligations have changed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. If anything, the duty of care to ensure the health and safety of employees in the workplace and the duty to make reasonable adjustments have intensified, with more employees suffering from mental health problems as a result of the outbreak. 

Checking in on employees working from home by way of regular catch ups is strongly advised during this time, to allow employees to share any concerns they have or anything that they need. Below are some further general practical tips on protecting employee mental health in the workplace.

Practical tips on protect mental health in the workplace
  • Provide training to managers and supervisors on mental health issues within the workplace.
  • Commit to valuing wellbeing and to create a mental health friendly culture, such as by introducing specific mental health practices and putting policies in place that are followed.
  • Make reasonable adjustments when required such as allowing flexible working, amending the employee’s workload, a phased return to work or providing paid time off for counselling.
  • Communicate and organise health and wellness programmes or workshops for all employees.
  • Check in with employees regularly to allow them to communicate openly about any worries they have in a safe space.
  • Address any discrimination on the grounds of mental health and encourage staff to report this.

In summary, as well as making business sense, supporting the mental health of employees is also essential for employers to avoid potential liability. Promoting a mental health friendly culture and providing manager training should form part of any employers’ approach.

The law and practice referred to in this article or webinar has been paraphrased or summarised. It might not be up-to-date with changes in the law and we do not guarantee the accuracy of any information provided at the time of reading. It should not be construed or relied upon as legal advice in relation to a specific set of circumstances.

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