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In this insight, associate Alex Reid focuses on the employment law implications at play when it comes to the mental health of staff.

“In my experience, mental health is a factor in a wide range of employment issues and disputes, going far beyond the immediate ramifications of a sickness absence. As anyone who has ever felt anxious or stressed will know (and presumably this is the entire population), this feeling generally comes with a difficulty to rationalise matters, either in an immediate sense or over a longer period of time. In employment situations, employees experiencing such emotions can act out of character, and may catastrophise on relatively minor incidents or interactions. There is sometimes a lack of awareness that events occurring in the world, like the pandemic and rising prices, have an emotional impact, and for those living alone in the last two years, loneliness is not something they will be able to shrug off completely when they log on to work.”

Mental health guidance for employers

“The obligation on employers in an employment context, in its simplest and most distilled form, is generally for the employer to act ‘reasonably’. Underlying mental health conditions are capable of amounting to disabilities under the Equality Act, if there is a long-term, substantial and adverse effect on the individual’s ability to carry out day-to-day activities. What is reasonable is judged on a case-by-case basis, and in essence, employers should be mindful of mental health in almost any important decision made that could impact on the employee, particularly where the employee has an underlying condition like anxiety, depression, or OCD. This does not mean that an employer cannot reach any decision that adversely impacts on an individual’s mental health; but it does mean that a balance ought to be sought between the impact on the employee’s mental health condition and the operational needs of the business or organisation. The employer still needs to pursue reasonable goals like maintaining standards of performance, ensuring regular attendance at work, and upholding effective communication between employees but there may need to be some adjustment to the usual processes.

“In terms of what employers can do in a proactive sense, it may help to remove stigma by normalising discourse about mental health. Management being open about their wellbeing is effective in this regard, as are team discussions on the subject, or a mental health ‘check in’ being part of appraisals and one-to-one meetings. As long as these conversations are handled sensitively, and confidentially, they should help to reduce any feelings of isolation or of not being understood. Other considerations include training mental health first aiders and champions, considering workloads and obvious signs of stress; and occupational health support, where necessary.

“Mental health can be a tricky area to navigate for employers, but it can be incredibly important for business reasons (as aside from the duty of care to staff), people working in an environment that manages these issues effectively, will generally foster a more productive and happier workplace, with less staff turnover.”

For further information and actions to support individuals suffering with loneliness, there is a helpful guide here – https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/mental-health-awareness-week/loneliness-help-and-advice

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