Employers cannot 'pay lip service' to workplace mental health issues, says expert, as review published

Out-Law Analysis | 31 Oct 2017 | 4:11 pm | 3 min. read

ANALYSIS: Both the government and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have signalled that mental well-being in the workplace is a priority. Simply paying lip service to mental health issues among the workforce is therefore no longer an option for employers.

In January 2017, UK prime minister Theresa May asked Lord Stevenson and Paul Farmer, the chief executive of mental health charity Mind, to carry out an independent review into how employers can better support the mental health of all people currently in employment, including helping those with mental health problems or poor well-being to remain in and thrive through work.

Their review, which has now been published, concluded that the UK "faces a significant mental health challenge at work", and made various recommendations to achieve their vision of "dramatically reducing the proportion of people with a long-term mental health condition who leave employment each year and ensure that all who can, benefit from the positive impacts of good work".

In response, the government has announced that NHS England and the civil service will adopt the recommendations of the report. The prime minister has also written to England's metro mayors and business bodies including the CBI, Institute of Directors (IoD) and Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) to draw their attention to the review and its 40 recommendations.

We await with interest the government's full response to the report, which is expected in the early part of next year. However, it is already clear that the tide is turning in relation to workplace mental health, which features as a priority in HSE's Helping Great Britain Work Well initiative, Go Home Healthy campaign and sector and thematic plans in particular.

It can easily be forgotten that obligations in relation to health and wellbeing exist in tandem with those relating to safety and preventing accidents. However, the penalties for breaches of these obligations are the same as those for safety breaches and cannot be ignored – particularly as multi-million pound fines are increasingly being handed down for health and safety offences irrespective of any harm caused.

Thriving at work

Central to the Stevenson/Farmer review is the vision that employees in all types of employment should have 'good' work which contributes positively to their mental health, our society and the economy. Everyone should also have the knowledge, tools and confidence to understand and look after their own mental health, and the mental health of those around them.

All organisations, whatever their size, should be equipped with the awareness and tools to not only address but prevent mental ill-health caused or worsened by work, and to support individuals with a mental health condition to thrive, from recruitment and throughout the organisation. They should also be aware of how to get access to timely help to reduce sickness absence caused by mental ill health.

To achieve this, the report sets out certain 'core' and 'enhanced' standards for organisations and employers.

The six mental health core standards provide a framework for a set of actions which all organisations can implement quickly:

  • produce, implement and communicate a mental health at work plan;
  • develop mental health awareness among employees;
  • encourage open conversations about mental health and the support available when employees are struggling;
  • provide employees with good working conditions and ensure they have a healthy work-life balance and opportunities for development;
  • promote effective people management through line managers and supervisors;
  • routinely monitor employee mental health and wellbeing.

Employers should consider their full range of employees when implementing the mental health core standards, including those working part-time or on shift patterns and those with additional needs or at a higher risk of stress or trauma.

More enhanced standards, to be met by public sector employers and those in the private sector with more than 500 employees, include:

  • increasing transparency and accountability through internal and external reporting;
  • demonstrating accountability;
  • improving the disclosure process;
  • ensuring provision of tailored in-house mental health support and signposting to clinical help.

The review also points to the influence and power that the public sector, and the government in particular, have to encourage faster change. It suggests that:

  • the government can do more to make it simple for employers to facilitate change, via support and an online information platform, and joining up existing provision aimed at employees and employers;
  • the government should consider exploring further the role to be played by incentives and public procurement processes in driving implementation of the mental health core standards;
  • the government should set clearer expectations of employers through legislation, and make Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) more flexible to better support people with mental health problems to make voluntary, phased returns to work where appropriate;
  • there is a significant role for the NHS to play in supporting workplace mental health by ensuring support is accessible, high quality and fits around work;
  • the government should do more to prevent and end employer practices which contravene employment and equalities legislation.

The review also recommends some external support for employers. Industry groups, trade unions, professional bodies, workplace regulators, local authorities and the HSE can all exert influence to drive up standards.

Of particular note are the suggestions that the HSE should:

  • revise its guidance to raise employer awareness of the duty to assess and manage work-related mental ill-health;
  • build on its risk assessment guidance and management standards approach by highlighting how these actions will help employers to deliver key parts of the mental health core standards; and
  • increase the focus on workplace mental health and safety during its inspections.

Kevin Bridges is a health and safety law expert at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com.