This week sees the publication of ‘Thriving at Work’, an independent report commissioned by the Prime Minister, Theresa May, laying down a stark message for employers that change is needed and calling on the government to adopt 40 recommendations, including calls for legislative reform. The report is co-authored by Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of mental health charity Mind and Dennis Stevenson, former HBOS chair.

A ‘mental health challenge at work’ which is coming at a cost

Identifying the UK as ‘facing a mental health challenge at work, that is much larger than we had thought’, headline figures in the report include the following:

  • up to 300,000 people with long-term mental health problems have to leave their jobs each year (although it is noted that this statistic may capture the same individual twice where they move around employment);
  • around 15% of people at work have symptoms of an existing mental health condition; and
  • poor mental health costs the UK economy up to £99bn each year due to employees who are ‘less productive, less effective, or off sick’.

Employers don’t understand the crucial role they can play, or know where to go for advice and support’

Paul Farmer highlights the ‘crucial’ role that employers must play, with the report alluding to the fact that ’employers are perhaps able to have the greatest impact and scope to make an impact’, being in the unique position of being able to ‘create a positive and supportive workplace culture themselves free from stigma’.

Call for all employers to adopt ‘mental health core standards’

A central recommendation of the report is for employers to adopt what are described as ‘mental health core standards’ – a framework for a set of actions which can be implemented across all workplaces ‘quickly’ and at little or no cost. These mental health core standards, which have been drawn from best practice, are as follows:

  • 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; and
  • routinely monitor employee mental health and wellbeing.

And enhanced standards for employers with 500 plus employees, including greater transparency

The report also outlines a series of more ambitious ‘enhanced’ standards for employers who ‘can and should do more to lead the way’ – which the report indicates are public sector employers and private sector companies with more than 500 employees. As well as calling on these employers to provide tailored in-house mental health support and signposting to clinical help, the enhanced standards include calls for increased transparency and accountability through internal and external reporting. The report asks the government to consider amending legislation and guidance, such as the Companies Act, to encourage employers to report on workplace mental health on their website or through other channels.

Legislative reform to protect employees with mental health conditions

Employers will also want to keep a keen eye on recommendations in the report for the government to consider legislative change ‘to enhance protections for employees with mental health conditions, particularly fluctuating mental health conditions’ and calls for clarification of the role of employers in providing reasonable adjustments. The report, however, does not limit the potential for legislative reform – recommending that the government examines ‘what more it can do to require employer compliance with existing equalities and employment laws’.

An eye on the gig economy and protecting the self-employed too

The report expressly alludes to the fact that the nature of work is changing and not all workplaces are the same. The authors of the report state that they have therefore sought to ensure that their recommendations can be adopted regardless of the size or type of workplace and have considered the findings of the recent Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices that there should be ‘good work’ for all. The report specifically recommends that online platforms with large reach amongst self-employed workers link up with NHS-approved health and wellbeing support to provide mental health support and advice which can be accessed by those working through their technology.

And more…

The report makes forty recommendations in total. Whilst some are focused specifically on the public sector, which the government is keen to lead the way, the vast majority will directly or indirectly impact on all UK businesses. They are wide-ranging and explore how mental health in the workplace can be tackled via a whole spectrum of avenues. In addition to those mentioned above, other recommendations include:

  • specific recommendations for industry groups, professional bodies, insurers and workplace regulators to all support employers on tackling workplace mental health;
  • calls on the Equality and Human Rights Commission to take a more proactive role in monitoring and taking enforcement action against employers that discriminate against individuals on the grounds of mental health and the Health and Safety Executive to revise its guidance, to raise employer awareness of their duty to assess and manage work-related mental ill-health;
  • the formation of a mental health online information portal, co-produced by the voluntary, public and private sectors, to promote best practice and enable employers of all sizes to implement the mental health core and enhanced standards;
  • calls on the government to align the fragmented occupational health and practical support available currently from Access to Work, the Fit for Work Service and other NHS services to create an integrated in-work support service to better support the needs of those with mental illness, and other physical health conditions and disabilities; as well as protecting and promoting the current tax relief for employers to invest in the mental health of employees whilst exploring alternatives to potentially incentivise employers to implement the mental health core standards; and
  • a recommendation for public bodies to encourage their suppliers to implement the mental health core standards.

What next for employers?

Whilst the report is simply making ‘recommendations’ at present, employers should not see that as an opportunity to sit back. Theresa May has made it abundantly clear that mental health is a priority on her agenda and the government is said to be considering the legislative changes suggested.

In any case, legislative reform aside, mental health is a real issue which employers need to embrace – complacency is not an option. ACAS has recently issued guidance on mental health in the workplace for employers and as Theresa May has commented, ‘it is only by making this an everyday concern for everyone that we change the way we see mental illness, so that striving to improve your mental health – whether at work or at home – is seen as just as positive as improving our physical well-being’.