Mental health and the law – an obligation to protect

By Catherine Hawkes, associate, Royds Withy King,

With one in six employees experiencing a mental health problem at some point in their career, it is important that employers take proactive steps to deal with this issue. The PR industry is a sector which is particularly vulnerable to stress and mental health issues given the nature of the work, which includes long hours and heavy workloads which both contribute to stress.

Line managers, who have day-to-day contact with their staff, have a crucial role in supporting employee’s wellbeing and keeping them in work. It is really important that managers are trained to spot the signs and symptoms of stress and are able to confidently take steps to support an employee who may be struggling at work or signposting them to the appropriate resource.

Not only is it important financially to businesses that employees are healthy and productive, but employers have legal obligations to protect their employees mental health. A failure to do so can lead to employment claims being brought by employees which can potentially be very expensive to an organisation. It also can cause reputational damage should their claims end up in an Employment Tribunal which is a public forum that publishes all decisions on an open online database.

There is a duty of mutual trust and confidence which is implied into every contract of employment and a failure to manage ill-health correctly can lead to employees (with 2 years service) resigning in response to their employers breach of contract and bringing a constructive unfair dismissal claim.

Employment claims can be expensive and the current statutory cap on compensation for an unfair dismissal claim is the employee’s annual salary or £86,444, whichever is the lower.

Employers also have obligations under the Equality Act 2010 to make reasonable adjustments for employees who are placed at a substantial disadvantage as a result of their mental ill-health. Failing to make adjustments is a form of discrimination. An employee does not require any length of service to bring a discrimination claim against their employer. There is no cap on compensation for discrimination claims which could potentially be awarded to an employee.

Line managers are best placed to spot the signs and symptoms of stress in their staff and are important in minimising the risk of employment claims to an organisation. Essentially, managers should be looking out for any changes in behaviour in their staff. This could take the form of:

  • Performance changes: either a gradual or sudden lack of motivation or making more mistakes;
  • Personality changes: behaving more argumentative or emotional than usual;
  • Withdrawing: being socially withdrawn; arriving late to work or calling in sick.
  • Physical changes: such as dramatic weight gain or loss.

Once such changes have been identified, it is important that managers take the lead and arrange a meeting to speak with employees.

An employer will not have a defence that they did not know about an employee’s mental health condition if they should reasonably have known about it. Employers should take reasonable steps and have systems in place, to find out the relevant information. Therefore, if you are not seen to be taking reasonable steps to protect your employees mental health, then managers will be exposing its organisation to employment claims.

Catherine Hawkes is a solicitor in the employment team at law firm Royds Withy King

Photo by CoWomen on Unsplash

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