HSE report highlights need for ‘full package’ of mental health support

Out-Law News | 11 Jan 2022 | 10:08 am |

Amy Hextell tells HRNews about the mental health issues she has been advising on during the past year

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  • Transcript

    Employers must offer a full package of mental wellbeing support to staff as we move towards hybrid working. That is the key message from the health and safety regulator, the HSE, following publication of its annual ‘Summary Statistics’ report which covers the first full year of the pandemic, April 2020 to March 2021. It shows that stress, anxiety, and depression were the cause of half of all work-related illness in that period with more than 800,000 people affected. 

    People Management reports on this and flags how women aged 25 to 34 were most likely to report problems. They blamed rising workloads, lack of support, violence, threats or bullying and changes at work. Sarah Albon, HSE’s chief executive, is quoted saying ‘The 12-month period in question coincides with the first national lockdown and the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic. The latest figures on work-related stress reinforce our previous concerns around the scale of this issue in workplaces.’ Andy Bell, deputy chief executive of the Centre for Mental Health, said the findings were worrying but employers can help by providing people with safe working conditions - workplaces that are open about mental health and where help is at hand when it’s needed.’ Emma Slaven, mental health and wellbeing senior business partner at Acas makes a similar point. She says employers can proactively support staff by encouraging two-way conversations about health and wellbeing as well as supporting line managers with the skills to recognise the signs and have conversations with staff who are struggling. We agree, and have made similar points many times in this programme.

    HR Review takes a different angle, looking at research showing how mental health support has become a key priority in benefits packages. They cite a survey by XPertHR showing that 60% of employers now prioritise mental health support in benefits packages. They say it comes as part of a wider move on the part of businesses to prioritise employee wellbeing with close to a quarter, 23%, putting it at the top of their agenda for the year ahead. 

    As you might expect, we have been advising on all these points ever since the pandemic started two years ago. Over that time clients have asked us to advice on almost every aspect of mental health and wellbeing so we thought it would be useful to share some of the key points, what we have been advising on during that period. To help with that is Amy Hextell who joined me by video-link from Birmingham. 

    Amy Hextell: “The first of those, I think probably goes without saying that the longer term impact of COVID is likely to still be a challenge in respect of mental health and something that we're helping clients with, whether that be those people that have suffered with COVID and perhaps have mental health effects of long COVID or whether it be in relation to people who are feeling increasingly anxious as they're expecting to come back to work or life is returning to normal. So, the long term challenges of COVID are likely to continue to persist for the next 12 months, at least, we think. The other main area really that we're advising on in relation to mental health is we also expect, as a result of the pandemic, an increase in focus from the Health and Safety Executive. So, all employers have got a legal duty to ensure the health and safety of their employees in the workplace, whether that be at home or actually physically out at a workplace location, but that also does extend to employee mental health and wellbeing and we think that there's going to be an increased focus on ensuring that that's the case in the coming months. Thirdly, tied with that really, and in relation to another legal duty, is the duty to make reasonable adjustments for those employees who have a disability and, of course, mental health conditions may well qualify as being a disability under the Equality Act which means that employers will be under a duty to make reasonable adjustments to remove any disadvantage that the employee is suffering because of that mental health condition. So, they are really the top three areas where we're seeing employers coming to us for advice.”

    Joe Glavina: “There’s some interesting research out there showing that employers are now clearly prioritising mental health support in their benefits packages. Thoughts on that.”

    Amy Hextell: “There's a need really to be seen to be leading the field in this area and demonstrating best practice. So, really a focus on mental health and wellbeing is something that employers are going to need to look at, if they've not already looked at it, with a view to attracting and retaining talent and, in particular, attracting new neurodiverse talent. So, for example attracting the expertise and skills that particular employees may have if they have a neurodiverse condition which leads to diversity of thought and experience. Then finally the other area that we've been looking at, and perhaps quite a broad area and not just related to the COVID pandemic, but also the events that we saw this year in relation to the Black Lives Matter protests and the killing of George Floyd, is the need to manage with empathy. Whether or not somebody has a mental health condition or is legally disabled, managing with empathy is of increasing importance at the moment and having an awareness of the fact that for many employees the last 12 months or so have been very difficult, may have been particularly traumatic, and actually, whilst it's great that employers are talking more to their employees about health and wellbeing and mental health in particular, and other diversity strands, talking about those things can actually be quite triggering and quite traumatic for employees in some circumstances. So, there's a real need to check in with employees to see how they're getting on, to understand their response to those things, and ensure that you're managing with empathy at all times.”

    Joe Glavina: “Last question Amy. If employees do open up and talk to their manager how does the manager maintain confidentiality? So the employee might be asking for reduced hours, or whatever, but in order to put that in place the manager needs to liaise with others, HR, other managers, employees in the team.”

    Amy Hextell: “This is a really difficult area and often an area that we get asked about because it really has got a lot to consider in it because you've got the need to meet your legal duty as an employer and make adjustments and provide adequate support. You've also then got the need to make sure that you're maintaining confidentiality, and of course, for the employee who has disclosed something it is a very sensitive subject and as much as lots of talk about mental health is helping to de-stigmatise it, there is still some stigma attached to it particularly in relation to the workplace and disclosing information. So, I think that really the way to redress this is that in that discussion, where somebody is disclosing information to you about their mental health and about the support they need, being really clear with them in the first instance that it may be necessary to share some of that information with others in order to put in place the support, but agreeing boundaries with them, if you like. So, being open and honest in that conversation and agreeing what parts of the conversation, or what parts of the information, the employee would be happy for you to disclose with others. I think really importantly, and the bit that would probably get forgotten but it's really vital from an employment law and risk perspective really, is documenting that. So, when you're having that discussion with the employee, note down not just what it is that they're saying, but also what it is that they're happy for you to disclose, what it is that they're not happy to be disclosed and then you're decision as a manager, or the thoughts that are in your mind as a manager, about why, for example, you wouldn't be disclosing something, so that if ever then there were to be an issue about whether or not you should have done more, or the employee is challenging you around disclosing information, you're able to rely then on those contemporaneous documents which show the decision making and could act as a defence to potential legal claim.”

    The CIPD has produced a number of factsheets for employers on managing mental health which offer some helpful guidance on this subject, albeit very high level. Acas has also produced a guide on coronavirus and mental health at work and the HSE has published guidance for employers on managing work-related stress. We have put links to all of those in the transcript of this programme.

    LINKS
    - Link to CIPD’s factsheets on managing mental health in the workplace
    - Link to Acas guide on coronavirus and mental health at work
    - Link to HSE guidance on managing work-related stress