A recent article in the Financial Times made reference to a “surge” in disability discrimination claims. In the 12 month period to April 2019 it referred to a 26% increase in such claims. One of the reasons for this it said was a reported willingness to lodge claims related to mental health issues. Whilst it is not clear how much of the increase in disability claims relates to an increased willingness to lodge claims related to mental health issues, it is likely to be a factor in this.
In the financial service sector, claims related to sexual harassment have increased since the #metoo movement. But is a toxic work culture prohibiting disability discrimination claims from coming forward? Companies are promoting their employees to be more open to talking about mental health, by giving them a greater awareness and openness about mental health issues, though it could be said that the heavy workloads and competitive environment, associated to the finance sector, are cancelling out these initiatives.
With this in mind, here are some suggestions for employers to approaching mental health issues in the workplace.
1. BE MINDFUL OF CHANGES IN BEHAVIOUR
Changes in an employee’s behaviour and demeanour can sometimes be an indication of stress or other mental health issues. Employers should consider such changes in behaviour in the context of performance or conduct matters, particularly where an employee has a history of performing well and no prior conduct issues. Whilst employers are of course entitled to take steps to address performance and conduct issues, it is important to recognise that if there is an underlying mental health issue, these processes may serve to aggravate this. Employers should consider what support they can provide to employees to help alleviate this. Being supportive to an employee and trying to accommodate requests they make to help alleviate mental health concerns (where reasonable and practical) can help minimise the chances of employees raising issues.
2. LOOK AT WHAT YOU DO
Employers need not re-invent the wheel, they can look to their existing health and safety systems for guidance. Information on mental health support can be added to existing Health and Safety displays, appropriate training can be provided for existing staff and new joiners, including an explanation of who to contact within the organisation if they experience problems. An employer could have mental health “champions” who people know they can go to for support. Actively encouraging employees to take a lunch break, even if this is a relatively short break, can be a simple way to help with wellbeing.
3. DON’T BE AFRAID TO ASK
It can be tempting for employers not to explore mental health problems with their staff for fear of gaining knowledge of a disability or simply because it feels uncomfortable to ask. However, while ignorance can be an advantage in some circumstances, it will not always protect employers, particularly if they ignore obvious signs that an employee is not mentally well (especially when this is over a period of time). Managers who are proactive in asking whether an employee is alright are more likely to be favourably perceived than a manager who only reacts when an employee reports something. This needs to be done sensitively, with respect for an employee’s privacy, but the fact that it can be difficult should not put people off trying. If an employer better understands what issues an employee is experiencing then they are, generally speaking, better placed to make more informed decisions.
4. WORK WITH EXTERNAL MENTAL HEALTH PARTNERS
Mental health can be a complex area. Employers may find it beneficial to partner with a charity or organisation that provides mental health services or information. Many organisations offer awareness-raising talks and training, so it is well worth investing some time in making contact with them.
5. PHYSICAL PROBLEMS CAN IMPACT ON MENTAL WELLBEING
Suffering from a physical impairment can mean an employee is more likely to develop mental health issues. It is worth remembering that the two do not necessarily occur in isolation. It can be very debilitating for someone who is not able to move around as freely as they once were or who suffers from physical pain. This can impact on their mental wellbeing.
Changing a competitive and potentially toxic work culture will take time, but a few changes can make a lot of difference to a company’s employees and everybody’s wellbeing. This in turn can lead to a happier, more productive and more content workforce, which has obvious benefits for employer.