Mental health in the workplace - Employers Responsibility, by Lisa Bryson, Head of Employment Practice, Eversheds Sutherland, Belfast

Mental health is fast becoming a hot topic in the workplace. It is rarely out of the media, reflecting campaigns by health trusts, charities, even celebrities and the Royal Family.  Recent research undertaken by 'Business in the Community' has highlighted that one in four adults currently working in Northern Ireland have been diagnosed with some form of mental health disorder. 

 Lisa Bryson, Eversheds Sutherland Belfast 

Lisa Bryson, Eversheds Sutherland Belfast 

According to mental health charities, these statistics do not necessarily reflect an increase in mental health problems. For example, perhaps more people are now willing to disclose such problems as attitudes change for the better. Whatever the reasons behind this trend, employers are increasingly under pressure to better manage and support mental health at work, but some are feeling ill-equipped to do so.

While managing mental health at work can be challenging, there are positive wellbeing and economic reasons for acting. These include reduced staff turnover, reduction in accidents and absence, increased morale, engagement and employer reputation.  In addition, research shows that some mental health problems are directly or partly caused by work. As a result, many employers already accept that their role goes beyond a reactive, medical response and includes proactive organisational as well as cultural measures.

The Stevenson/Farmer review, published at the end of 2017, included 40 recommendations directed at employers, government and other organisations.  The recommendations include the promotion of a set of ‘mental health core standards’ that all employers should adopt, with enhanced standards for large employers and employers in the public sector.  

The Stevenson/Farmer review core standard recommendations suggest that all employers can and should:

1.Produce, implement and communicate a mental health at work plan that promotes good mental health of all employees and outlines the support available for those who may need it.

2.Develop mental health awareness among employees by making information, tools and support accessible.

3.Encourage open conversations about mental health and the support available when employees are struggling.

4.Provide good working conditions and ensure employees have a healthy work life balance and opportunities for development.

5.Promote effective people management to ensure all employees have a regular conversation about their health and well-being with their line manager, supervisor or organisational leader and train and support line managers and supervisors in effective management practices.

6.Routinely monitor employee mental health and wellbeing by understanding available data, talking to employees, and understanding risk factors.

Recognising that some employers feel ill equipped to manage mental health issues, the review recommends that Government should set up a mental health online information portal to promote best practice. It also notes that employers need to recognise that their role goes beyond what happens in the workplace, not least because technology and other factors increasingly blur the line between work and home life, but also because employers can play a significant role in supporting employees through major life events like bereavement, debt, and relationship breakdown, which can cause or exacerbate mental health conditions.

The Government has said it will respond to the recommendations in due course. Although new legislation is unlikely in the short term due to the present political climate, it is a possibility later down the line. Employers may find the recommendations of the Stevenson/Farmer review of interest now as they consider their own individual approach to this issue.