1 February 2024 is the 'nation's biggest mental health conversation', Time to Talk Day, run by mental health charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness with the aim of encouraging conversations around mental health, both socially and in the workplace. 

Time to Talk Day provides an opportunity for employers not only to reflect on employee wellbeing, but also to take active steps that open up conversations to improve mental health. In this Passle, Pip Galland (Employment Senior Associate and Chair of the Board of mental health charity, Bath Mind) and Emily Fox (Trainee Solicitor) look at how employers can facilitate conversations with employees about their mental health and wellbeing at work, along with the business benefits of doing so.

Why is mental health important at work? 

In October 2023, we discussed in a blog post the significant commercial risks posed to businesses that failed to manage sickness absence, including the rising rates of mental ill health associated costs and potential claims. To recap, what we know is that mental ill health remains a leading cause of sickness absence among employees, and the impact of this often leads to loss of productivity, staff retention, reputation and a decline in company culture. 

There are also legal risks and pitfalls for employers who fail to meet their legal obligations to staff experiencing mental ill health. Employees are protected from being discriminated against by reason of disability from day one of their employment. Mental ill health can amount to a disability for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010. Under the Equality Act, a person’s ill health constitutes a disability:

  • If they suffer from a mental impairment; 
  • the effect of that impairment is long term; and
  • it has a substantial adverse impact on their ability to carry out normal day to day activities.

In order for obligations under the Equality Act to arise, an employer must know (or ought to have known) that the employee has a disability – this can be difficult to determine where the impairment relates to mental health conditions. This is why encouraging a workplace culture where staff feel empowered and supported to talk about mental health issues affecting their wellbeing at work is so important. 

Employers are also under a duty to make reasonable adjustments to alleviate disadvantageous working conditions if an employee is disabled. Reasonable adjustments might include allowing time off in the working day to attend medical appointments, as well as further training or mentoring. Employers are under a duty to consider adjustments even if they are not requested by the employee. Compensation for successful claims of discrimination or where the employer has failed to make a reasonable adjustment can be unlimited and include awards for injury to feelings. As such, supporting mental health at work goes beyond an employer’s moral compass and it should form a key part of a business’ strategic agenda. 

Here are 5 practical steps that employers can take to support wellbeing at work this Time to Talk day. 

  1. Regular check-ins. This is especially important in today's world of remote working where it may not be apparent that an employee is struggling with their mental health. When holding one-to-one meetings with employees, include a welfare check-in and/or cover wellbeing as a standing agenda item in team meetings. Putting employees' mental wellbeing at the forefront of check-ins and team meetings encourages an open dialogue about mental health and enables employees to feel empowered to seek the help they need when they need it. Where mental ill health gives rise to a period of sickness absence, employers should arrange a return to work interview to understand the reason for the employee's absence. By having the opportunity to raise issues at regular intervals, employees are more likely to feel valued and supported.
  2. Signpost wellbeing support systems. Employees should be aware of the full extent of wellbeing support available to them beyond the support provided by their line manager. As with regular check-ins, wellbeing support should be available to employees working remotely as well as to those in the office. 
  3. Invest in mental health training and/or mental health first aid. Line managers should be trained - they do not need to be mental health experts, but they need to know how to identify the signs of mental ill health, how to handle discussions with affected employees and how to escalate concerns to their HR team. Managers should also be aware of what support is available for employees and how to implement mental health programmes. This boosts employee confidence to share concerns with managers who are well trained to support employees.
  4. Set clear expectations about working time and promote a healthy work life balance. Since the pandemic, many employers have given employees flexibility to work around their core hours, whether that is to attend to childcare matters or as a way of promoting a better work life balance. As a result, employee working patterns are now far more variable. Employers need to clearly manage expectations around where work ends and home life begins. For example, make it clear if employees are not expected to reply to emails received out of hours from colleagues who have chosen to flex their working day.
  5. Obtain medical advice and consider reasonable adjustments at an early stage. When it comes to managing mental health, the emphasis should be on support and prevention. However, there may be times when, despite your best efforts, the impact of an employee’s mental health means that specialist medical advice is required. Seeking occupational health advice is always recommended where an employee is on sick leave for more than a few weeks so that the employer can understand the prognosis as well as identify possible adjustments that could be made to facilitate a return to work. Alternatively, an employee may be at work and need adjustments to enable them to remain working. There is no ‘list’ of reasonable adjustments – they need to be tailored to the individual, their medical circumstances and role. Examples of reasonable adjustments may include increased supervision; debriefing sessions after particular tasks; access to a mental health support; and identifying opportunities for more social connections.

In our view, it is imperative that employers continue to tackle the effects of mental ill health, not only in line with their legal obligations, but also from a strategic, moral and ethical standpoint. Organisations that address workplace wellbeing head on help to de-stigmatise mental ill health and create supportive workplaces, in which employees have the best opportunity to flourish. If you are interested in finding out more, please contact Pip Galland or another member of our Employment Team.

This article was co-written by Pip Galland with Emily Fox.