Coronavirus: the hidden impact on employee mental health

Out-Law Analysis | 12 Mar 2020 | 6:39 pm | 2 min. read

The duty on UK employers to ensure the health and safety of employees in the workplace extends to mental health conditions triggered or exacerbated by the coronavirus outbreak.

Sensitive handling of the potential mental health impacts of the outbreak also allows employers to demonstrate their commitment to diversity and inclusion.

The outbreak of coronavirus, officially Covid-19, may be concerning to many people, but that may especially be the case for those already experiencing mental health conditions such as stress, anxiety and depression. Uncertainty over the impact of the disease may be unsettling and exacerbate feelings of stress and anxiety. Those with depression may be particularly affected if there is a requirement to self-isolate, stay indoors and avoid contact with others. The focus on handwashing and hygiene in government guidance may cause problems for those with obsessive or compulsive tendencies.

We cover the employment law, immigration, health and safety and data protection issues for UK employers in a separate Out-Law guide. We have also considered the potential implications for employers in Ireland.

Mental health at work: the legal framework

Employees who have a mental impairment which has a substantial adverse impact on their ability to carry out normal day to day activities, and which has lasted or is likely to last 12 months, are likely to be considered disabled for the purposes of employment law and to qualify for protection from discrimination under the 2010 Equality Act.

An employer's duty to make reasonable adjustments may be triggered once an employer knows, or is given sufficient information or 'signs' that means they ought to have known, that an employee has a condition which meets these requirements. This means that where a physical feature, or a policy or practice applied by the employer, places the employee at a disadvantage, the onus is on the employer to take reasonable steps to remove that disadvantage.

Amy Hextell

Pinsent Masons

Employers should think carefully about how they communicate with employees about the coronavirus, and have regard to the impact that requirements to travel, or a management instruction to work from home or to pick up additional work as a result of other employees being absent from work may have

Often, the employee will suggest adjustments that might remove the disadvantage and enable them to participate and perform at work. However, this will not always be the case and the law very firmly places the responsibility on the employer to raise these with the employee.

As such, employers should think carefully about how they communicate with these employees about the coronavirus, and have regard to the impact that requirements to travel, or a management instruction to work from home or to pick up additional work as a result of other employees being absent from work may have.

UK employers also have a general duty of care towards their employees, which includes the need to ensure employee health and safety in the workplace. Mental health support has been a significant element of many employers' commitment to inclusion in the workplace, and employers interested in demonstrating best practice might choose to suggest ways in which employees may look after their mental health in these most unusual of circumstances.

Potential steps may include:

  • making plans to keep in touch digitally with people should there be a need for them to either self-isolate or otherwise work from home;
  • checking connectivity and making arrangements should you be working away from the office to reduce the stress and anxiety that may be caused by not having the resources you need;
  • taking care to ensure that sources of news and information are legitimate;
  • putting in place a routine which involves keeping active and getting sunlight and fresh air, by opening a window or sitting close to a window where possible; and
  • building in relaxation and doing activities you enjoy.

At the very least, as the coronavirus continues to disrupt people's working lives, employers should remind their employees of the resources available to them. This may include a 'mental health champion' scheme at work, access to counselling services and the guidance available from the WHO, Mind and Mental Health Foundation, among other organisations.

Amy Hextell is an employment law expert at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law. Additional research by Lucy Ebbitt.