The recent Germanwings crash has raised the issue of correctly handling mental illness in the workplace. Andreas Lubitz is suspected of deliberately flying the plane in to the French Alps, killing all 150 people on board.
In the light of the co-pilot’s history of depression, Zee Hussain, partner and head of the employment department at Colemans-ctts, provides legal and practical advice on employers’ responsibilities around their employees’ mental health.
Mental health problems cost employers billions through lost production and absence; the benefits of good mental health among the workforce can have a large impact on the business.
To deal with mental illness effectively, it is important to address its effects as soon as possible. However, there are certain factors that influence an individual’s mental health that employers cannot control.
Personal relationships, finances and conditions at home are issues that organisations may not be able to help their employees with. However, they can make small adjustments to enable a member of staff to continue doing their job. Monitoring workload, workspace environment and workplace relationships are a good way to start.
Mental health resources
Communicating with an employee to create awareness of the issues is key. As an employer, creating a culture in which employees feel able to discuss their problems is important.
Proactive management of employees’ mental health can bring many benefits, including reduction of sickness absence, greater staff engagement and productivity and reduced staff turnover, recruitment and costs.
Legal obligations and mental illness in the workplace
If an employer fails to spot the signs of mental ill health and treats an employee less favourably, they can find themselves in breach of their legal duty and at risk of potential claims of discrimination.
The Equality Act 2010 considers a mental health condition to be a disability. A person is defined as disabled if they have a mental or physical impairment that has a substantial long term (ie, for more than 12 months) effect on their normal day-to-day activities.
Employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for employees with disabilities, in order to ensure that they have the same access to everything involved in getting the job done as a non-disabled employee. Therefore, employers are under a positive and proactive duty to take steps to remove, reduce or prevent the obstacles that a disabled worker faces.
Sensitive personal data
When it comes to dealing with mental illness in the workplace, there is something else that employers need to be aware of. The Information Commission Office (ICO) sets out recommended best practices for dealing with sensitive personal data about an individual’s mental health.
The ICO carries a very clear message that businesses must be completely transparent about how they are going to process sensitive personal data concerning a person’s mental health. Unless an individual knows from the outset what their information will be used for, they are not in a position to make an informed decision.
Best practice is to obtain explicit consent from an individual before using or dealing with data about their mental health. Employers will need to train their staff on how to explain the policy and to obtain this consent.
The ICO makes clear that an organisation should not assume that it will be reasonably obvious to an individual who shares information about their mental health and how that data will be processed, and so it should not, therefore, conclude that an explanation is not required.
Practical tips for dealing with mental illness in the workplace
Taking all this information into consideration, what can you actually do to deal with mental illness in the workplace effectively?
- First of all, putting the individual at the centre of the discussion is vital for agreeing workplace adjustments, in order to understand and meet their specific needs. Using the advice and guidance of other professionals, such as the individual’s GP or asking for support from occupational health and HR, can also be invaluable in finding solutions.
- It is important to promote awareness of mental health issues in the workplace and create a culture where employees feel that they can talk to managers about any concerns they may have. Effective communication and consultation is key, coupled with an appreciation of mental health problems and a willingness to help other employees. It can help to raise any concerns with the employee – keeping communication channels open is critical.
- Employers should watch out for any signs and intervene as early as possible. It’s also important to ensure that line manages are well-versed in the importance of dealing with employees exhibiting signs of mental illness.
- Employers must ensure that clear procedures and policies are in place. They should ensure there is a mental health policy in place and check they are are asking the employee for explicit consent in all cases.
It is clear that mental illness is a difficult topic to address – for employers as well as employees. It is important to start talking about it in a constructive manner and break the taboo. Both employer and employee will benefit from this, and it will hopefully contribute to a more positive work culture.