This week (18-24 May 2020) marks Mental Health Awareness Week in the United Kingdom. It falls at a time where the issue of employee mental health and wellbeing is a prime consideration for employers. The COVID-19 pandemic has had an immediate impact on the mental health of individuals, through distress due to the physical effects of the virus and fear of losing family members. Mental health has also been indirectly impacted by the pandemic; the UK has been under lockdown for nearly 9 weeks and there are reports of an increase in anxiety and stress because of social isolation and concerns regarding economic turmoil.
Currently, the government advice remains that employers should make every effort to support working from home and many employers have already invested in technology to enable home working to support business continuity. Employers have both common law and statutory duties relating to the health and safety of their employees – these duties extend beyond the physical health of employees and apply even where employees are working from home. Having regard for employees' mental health not only ensures compliance with legal duties but also demonstrates a supportive culture which acknowledges the importance of employee wellbeing.
What impact has the COVID-19 pandemic had on employee mental health?
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has stated that the impact of the pandemic on people’s mental health is already extremely concerning. Already heightened anxiety has been compounded as the lockdown has required employees to unexpectedly accept changes to their working practices and welcome homeworking as the new normal. Whilst some employees will be trying to balance caring responsibilities with work, a virtual office space allows a constant stream of communication and unlimited access to work which presents a real risk that the boundaries between work and home life are blurred, limiting when employees can truly get away from work and switch off. A reduction of face to face contact presents risks of a lack of team cohesion and can exacerbate employees' feelings of loneliness already brought on by social isolation.
Why should employers have regard for employee mental health?
Employers have a common law duty to take reasonable care of their employees' safety and face liability for personal injury claims if they fail to do so. Under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, employers have a statutory duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all their employees and those affected by their activities. It is vital for employers to acknowledge that their obligations here include protecting the mental health and wellbeing of their employees whilst they are working from home as far as reasonably practicable.
What constitutes 'reasonably practicable' will be fact dependent but it does include conducting a suitable and sufficient risk assessment and implementing controls to mitigate identified risks. Employee stress and anxiety is a major risk to employers and in light of the changes to usual working practices brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, employees may be struggling with the demands of their job, feel unsupported in their role through a lack of contact with their mangers, and feel concerned about their job security.
Employers must not unlawfully discriminate against disabled employees and have a positive duty to make reasonable adjustments to remove any substantial disadvantages these employees face when doing their jobs, which may include adjustments to working hours, altering staff workloads and providing additional support. A worker may be classed as a disabled person under the Equality Act 2010 where they suffer a mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term negative effect on their ability to do normal daily activities. This can include depression and anxiety.
In addition, company directors have a statutory fiduciary duty under the Companies Act 2006 to promote the success of the company and, in doing so, to have regard the interests of the company's employees. Directors of listed companies, private companies with external investors and employee-owned companies and cooperatives will find themselves under increasing pressure from their shareholders and stakeholders to treat their workers well and be seen to "do the right thing".
Ultimately, employee wellbeing and mental health should be taken seriously as a core business issue for employers; failure to safeguard employee wellbeing can be detrimental to business. According to the U.N. report and policy guidance on COVID-19 and mental health, "good mental health facilitates that people perform in key roles". Employee mental health problems can have a direct impact on business productivity and profitability – the WHO estimates that the global economy loses more than US$ 1 trillion per year due to depression and anxiety. We recommend that employers take a proactive approach to mitigate these risks.
What can employers do to protect employee mental health whilst they work from home?
It is estimated that one in four people will experience a mental health issue in their lifetime. It is now more important than ever before in our working lifetimes that employers actively care about and takes steps to safeguard their workers' mental health and well being, both during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.
In order to protect their employees from chronic stress and poor mental health whilst working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, we recommend that employers consider undertaking risk assessments to identify risks to employee mental health to educate steps to mitigate these risks. Taking a proactive approach with employees is imperative. In particular, employers should consider whether reasonable adjustments should be made for disabled employees.
We set out below some recommended practical steps that employers can take to support the mental health of their employees.
- Carry out risk assessments specifically targeted at mental health and well-being.
- Consider introducing training for managers to enable them to identify signs of mental health issues, and equip them with helpful coping strategies.
- Maintain a good business culture through setting boundaries and allowing employees to have a positive work/life balance.
- Encourage employees to use the support tools available to them that may be offered as part of a benefits package, such as an employee assistance programme.
- Be flexible and understand personal needs – some employees will be trying to balance caring responsibilities whilst working and may benefit from a less rigid working day.
- Check in with employees regularly to ensure their wellbeing and offer support. Working from home can be isolating particularly with the current social restrictions and where employees live alone.
- Appoint mental health "champions" who can promote the support available from the employer.
- Set up communication channels such as employee forums to help address mental health in the workplace.
Above all, communication is key and businesses will benefit from employees who feel listened to and supported throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Whilst this update has focused on the mental health and well-being of employees who work from home, it is important for employers to consider employees who are returning to the workplace and those who have been furloughed. The stress and anxiety involved in returning to a place of work during a pandemic cannot be underestimated, nor can the feeling of isolation and vulnerability for those who have been furloughed.
Returning to work considerations - Please see our employment checklist for a step by step guide on the key measures to consider >
Authors: Elinor Hughes and Helga Breen