Wellbeing in the workplace: employers responsibilities to employees

The 10th of October 2020 marks World Mental Health Day, which highlights the importance of wellbeing in the workplace whether that be at home, the office or any other work environment. In light of the increasing awareness around this issue, employers should be aware of the importance of staff wellbeing and their legal obligations around this.

The importance of wellbeing in the workplace

For many people, work is an integral part life where a significant amount of time is spent. For employers, taking care of your staff is invaluable. A healthy work force increases performance, productivity and profitability and can further help with retaining staff.

Work related stress is a huge problem within many industries and one which is hard to avoid. The Health and Safety Executive found that in 2015/16, the total number of cases of work related stress, depression or anxiety was 488,000 or 37% of all work related illnesses. The mental health charity, Mind, found that when asked about the effects of workplace stress, 21% of people agreed that they had called in sick to avoid work. ACAS further found that the estimated cost of mental ill health to UK employers each year is between £33 billion and £42 billion.

There is ample amount of evidence and research showing the benefits of looking after employee’s mental health however employers are also under legal obligations to place importance on this.

Employer’s legal obligations

Employees have a wide range of legal rights protecting their mental health within the workplace.

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 also imposes a general duty on employers to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of all employees. Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, further duties are imposed on employers, including undertaking risk assessments.

Although breach of the above legislation does not create direct rights for employees to sue their employers for compensation, failure to comply with the statutory duties can be used as evidence in a personal injury case, to prove a breach of the common law duty of care. The key focus here is on whether the harm was reasonably foreseeable and if the employer took reasonable steps to avoid it.

The Equality Act 2010 further provides protection for people with disabilities from discrimination, harassment and victimisation. The meaning of a disability within the Equality Act is a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the ability to carry out normal day to day activities. Mental health problems can meet this definition and as a result, employers have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments under the act. A reasonable adjustment is where an employer changes an employee’s role to remove barriers and make things easier for them at work. Protection under the Equality Act is further not limited to people who themselves have a disability, but extends protection to those associated with a disabled person and those who are wrongly perceived to be disabled.

Significantly, should an employee be successful is showing their employer has discriminated against them; there is no limit on the amount of compensation that can be awarded by the tribunal.

An employer also has legal obligations when deciding to terminate the employment of someone with a mental illness and if the required steps are not taken, the employee may have an unfair dismissal claim. 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.

Practical tips to 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.

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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