The Stevenson and Farmer review commissioned by the Prime Minister today published its report on mental health in the workplace, Thriving at Work. The review looks into how employers can better support all individuals currently in employment, including those with mental ill health or poor well-being to remain in and thrive through work.

The report reveals that the UK is facing a mental health challenge in the workplace that is much larger than had previously been thought. Not only is there a big human cost of poor mental health at work but the authors estimate that employers are currently losing £42billion each year due to staff suffering from mental health problems and being less productive, less effective, or off sick, while the annual cost to the UK economy as a whole is up to £99 billion.

They found that about 15% of people at work have symptoms of an existing mental health condition, which the authors said illustrates the fact that given the right support they can thrive in employment.

The most progressive organisations in this area are already being quite open in terms of their internal reporting and what they put on their intranet in terms of how they support their staff with mental health and well-being issues. The review however focuses on a number of mental health standards that can be adopted across all workplaces at little or no cost and urges employers of all sizes to commit to these six core standards around mental health.

The review says employers should:

  • Create a mental health at work plan
  • Build mental health awareness by making information and support accessible
  • Encourage open conversations
  • Provide good working conditions and ensure employees have a healthy work-life balance
  • Promote effective people management, with line managers holding regular conversations about health and well-being with their staff
  • Routinely monitor employee mental health

The report expects large employers to go further and the authors call on the government and public sector to lead by example. It says the government should also ensure that the NHS provides high quality mental health services, quick and convenient to fit around employment, and consider enhancing protections for employees with mental health conditions in the Equality Act 2010.

The report’s authors rightly note that individuals with mental ill health and poor well-being, including those with a serious mental health problem, can – with the right support –still be thriving at work and contribute positively to an employer’s business.

Unfortunately, regardless of the level of support given, employees who are sick or absent can have a significant impact on their colleagues and employer’s business. Most absence issues can and should be managed without the need for escalating matters. However, an employer should deal with matters formally when the absence levels present an unacceptable level of disruption to the business.

This will include following a fair and reasonable sickness absence procedure under which the employer should explore the following issues:

  • The likely date of return (arrangements for future contact, further medical review and further meetings under the procedure) and whether the employer can continue to wait for the employee to return.
  • Whether the employee perceives they can return to their previous job and what adjustments can be made.
  • What alternatives the employee may wish to explore: redeployment or application for employment benefits.
  • The mechanics of a return-to-work programme. This may involve considering a return-to-work plan suggested by occupational health.
  • Whether the person has a disability and, if so, whether there are any reasonable adjustments that should be made.

In circumstances where an employee is not expected to return to work in the near-term or foreseeable future, an employer may wish to consider, as a last resort, dismissal for capability / ill-health reasons. In cases of long-term absence, the following factors will be relevant to how long an employer may be expected to wait:

  • The availability of temporary cover (including its cost).
  • The fact that the employee has exhausted his sick pay.
  • The administrative costs that might be incurred by keeping the employee on the books.
  • The size of the organisation.

As most employers will recognise, sickness management procedures can be long, expensive and frustrating for all parties, in particular where mental health issues are involved. Anything which can be done to reduce the use of formal procedures is to be welcomed; all employers and HR officers should be giving serious thought to implementing the six core standards around mental health proposed in the Thriving at Work report.