Almost half of UK employees do not feel comfortable talking about mental health issues with their employer and believe that doing so could damage their career. That is the main finding of research by HR firm MHR which questioned over 6,000 workers amid concerns that employers are still not addressing the issue of mental health adequately. The same study also shows a 16% increase in the number of employees taking days off work because of mental health issues.
People Management reports on this and quotes Jeanette Wheeler, HR director at MHR, who says the stigma around mental health was still very much present in the work environment. She said individuals that recognise they need time off to look after their wellbeing should not feel threatened to admit the truth to their employer. She says, ‘these findings should urge business leaders to re-evaluate their approaches to mental health’ and that ‘creating safe spaces in the workplace for conversations around mental health was more than just company-wide training’. She said ultimately it comes down to the culture of an organisation.
Commenting on World Mental Health Day – 10 October – Jamie Mackenzie, director at Sodexo Engage, said the pandemic had increased many people’s levels of stress and anxiety, and employers needed to be mindful that some of their workforce would need more time to adjust than others. He said ‘leaders and managers need to be compassionate, lead with empathy, understand their people’s challenges, and work to help them through these tough times’. He said employers could help by offering their staff access to professional help through an employee assistance programme along with paid days off.
From a legal point of view there are, of course, a number of employment law obligations that are triggered once an employee has developed a mental health issue, not least the duty to make reasonable adjustments in line with the Equality Act. This has been covered in some detail by Anne Sammon in her article for Outlaw this time last year, alongside health and safety specialist Kevin Bridges. Anne says: ‘increasingly, issues relating to factors that might contribute towards mental health conditions – for example, stress and excessive working hours – are being related to an employer's health and safety obligations.’ The message is that employers who take a more pro-active approach to managing those issues, in line with the HSE Management Standards, can reduce legal risk.
From a regulatory perspective, Covid-19 is forcing organisations to reconsider their approach. The HSE's own guidance requires employers to consider ‘psychosocial risk’ as part of the risk assessment which is undertaken to ensure a 'Covid-secure' workplace – a point we will come back to. The HSE is of course the regulator, and Kevin makes the point how they ‘may well take greater interest in an employer's policies regarding homeworking generally and occupational stress in particular.’
Last year at this time Kevin was flagging upcoming new guidelines being developed to help businesses around the world, and multinational organisations in particular, to effectively manage mental health issues in the workplace. He was referring to the International Organisation for Standardisation and the development of ISO 45003, a new international standard for psychological health and safety in the workplace. That has now been published - that happened in June - and the ISO tells employers it ‘will address the many areas that can impact a worker’s psychological health, including ineffective communication, excessive pressure, poor leadership and organisational culture.’
So that’s the theory but what is happening on the ground? Zoe Betts is a health and safety specialist, part of Kevin’s team, and she joined me by video-link to discuss the issues. I started by asking about this label used by the ISO the HSE, ‘psychosocial’ risk, which is a new one to many people:
Zoe Betts: “Yes that’s true. Psychosocial risk is a phrase that we wouldn't necessarily have been banding around a few years ago but, again, it's something which has come to the fore and I think it is an understanding that this is not just about somebody's physical safety, there is a lot going on with mental health, and the employer in the workplace is a huge part of that. When you think about how many hours people spend at work then it is incumbent upon the employer to consider what psychological support employees may need. It is also probably relevant to mention that there is a new global standard emerging this year, ISO 45003, and that is the first global standard giving practical guidance and promoting best practice in managing psychological health in the workplace. So that's something that people should be aware of. It's not compulsory, but it is something that businesses may want to look into, or may want to adopt, because it really is a management structure and better regulation for managing that psychosocial risk in the workplace.”
Joe Glavina: “Jeanette Wheeler, HR director at MHR, says ultimately it comes down to the culture of an organisation. I'm assuming you agree with that?”
Zoe Betts: “I absolutely do, and I've been giving advice to clients for many, many years about improving their health and safety culture in particular. Culture is very difficult to define, it can seem woolly, it’s a bit like nailing jelly to the wall, what is a culture? You tend to know when you see one, especially a bad one, I have to say, but there are some very real and tangible benefits to having a positive health and safety and HR culture and that’s what we talk to our clients about all the time. What you don't want is to be seen as an employer that really doesn't care about its workforce, it just wants to get the product out the door at the end of the day, make the money, make the bottom line. This is about people. This is not fluffy and woolly. This is about your workforce, trying to prevent sick leave, trying to prevent paying out on sick pay and then having to cover those people, trying to retain your talent, trying to time to prevent high turnover. I think, more so than ever, people, when they look for jobs do their research. They look at a company's culture, they look at how that company promotes itself, they will take recommendations and word of mouth and I think it would be very short sighted for an employer to believe that disregarding the workforce’s welfare is a good thing to do and that it's not going to have a negative impact on reputation, because in my view, it absolutely will.”
Joe Glavina: “Last question Zoe. We know that the HSE frequently uses targeted inspections in order to drive up standards. Have you seen evidence of that?”
Zoe Betts: “Yes, I have. I don't want to overstate the issue and I think it's always going to be the case that the Health and Safety Executive will investigate and traditional issues relating to safety and occupational health, whether that's guarding, or work at height, or manual handling, those issues will always be around but I think I am very well placed to comment and I've been giving advice to my clients for some time about the need to consider mental health. There is a lot of guidance out there on stress management and HSE have put a wealth of information on its own website and they will absolutely ask those questions during those targeting inspections that you just referred to. I think, to put this in its proper context, and this is what we say to clients, there is no doubt there won't be a mass of enforcement action or prosecutions, in my view, relating to stress management. I think it's quite difficult to prove because stress in the workplace is so inextricably linked to other issues. It could be difficult from an evidential point of view but that's a different matter. I think when we come back to culture, and actually what the HSE may be looking for to see what steps an employer is taking to safeguard the health and safety and wellbeing of their employees in the round, then they would be really concerned to understand what an employer has done to consider stress and to consider mental health and that will only increase because of the pandemic, these issues have really come to the fore. So, an employer I think would be taking a risk if it turned a blind eye to those sorts of issues. If it doesn't have an answer to the HSE’s questions on stress and mental health I don't think you will be looking at a prosecution but I think you could be looking at an improvement notice and that in itself is serious for many businesses.”
Zoe referred to ISO 45003. We notice that HR Magazine ran an article on it just last week – ‘Avoiding the pitfalls of ISO 45003 for psychological health, safety and wellbeing at work’ – which makes the point that if your business is looking to implement that standard then the chances are that the responsibility for this will have fallen to your HR team, at least in part. If that means you, and you want to read about this new standard for yourself, you can. The ISO’s guidance note for managing psychosocial risk is available from the ISO website. We have put a link to that in the transcript of this programme.
- Link to ISO 45003:2021