Depression not good enough reason for time off, say half of employers

UK employers are leaving themselves wide open to disability discrimination claims because they are failing to take depression and stress in the workplace seriously, new research reveals.

More than half (52%) of the 1,822 firms surveyed by online therapy service Mentaline.com do not consider depression as a good enough reason to take time off, while more than one in five admit that they would be less likely to employ someone if they knew they had a history of mental illness.

More than one-third (39%) of employers “struggle” to take mental health seriously, nearly two-thirds (64%) fail to view anxiety as a good reason for leave, and nearly three-fifths (59%) say the same about stress, the poll found.

Just over two-thirds (68%) revealed that they would be more sympathetic towards employees with a physical illness than those suffering from mental illness.

Jesper Buch, founder of Mentaline.com, said that it was shocking to see so many employers disregard issues such as depression and stress.

“Many of these issues can actually stem from working environments; so it’s important that employers acknowledge the problems, and fully understand them,” he said.

“As for employers being less in favour of hiring people with a history of mental health, that is discrimination, and in most cases is against the law. Unfortunately, mental health is still a very taboo subject in many people’s eyes, but that needs to stop. Education and raised awareness of the issues surrounding mental health is the only way to do so effectively.”

A spokeswoman for mental health charity Mind described the study as exposing “double standards” in the way employers approach mental health.

“Although many employers said they struggle to take mental health problems seriously and didn’t think it was worthy of sick leave, they did think that it was serious enough to stop them employing someone who had a mental health issue,” she told Personnel Today.

“Evidence shows that employers who invest in staff wellbeing actually save themselves money and improve the productivity of their workforce, saving up to 30% of the costs of mental health related sickness absence and ‘presenteeism’. It’s in everyone’s interest to take it seriously.”

Stephen Simpson, senior employment law editor at XpertHR, said that employers need to make a distinction between an employee simply being a bit down and “clinical depression”, which is a medically recognised condition.

“On the one hand, employers are entitled to be sceptical about an individual who is absent from work due to a low mood caused by difficulties at work, described recently by an EAT judge as ‘Sunday-night syndrome’,” he said. “On the other hand, they should support and make reasonable adjustments for employees who have provided evidence from a doctor of an actual medical condition, whatever their personal opinion of the individual’s health.”

Simpson added that employers who rejected a job applicant for disclosing a history of mental illness were leaving themselves wide open to disability discrimination claims.

XpertHR resources on disability discrimination