The health and safety industry is usually pre-occupied with how employment and work-related activities can impact on physical health. However, work-related stress and mental illness is a principal concern to employers and employees with 0.5 million workers suffering from work-related stress, anxiety and depression. Work-related stress often exacerbates an existing mental health problem or can cause a mental health problem if experienced over a prolonged period of time.
Employers can help manage and prevent stress by improving conditions at work. But you also have a role in making adjustments and helping someone manage a mental health problem at work.
On 26 October 2017, the independent review into workplace mental health, commissioned by the Prime Minister in January, has published its report. Led by Lord Dennis Stevenson and Paul Farmer, the report, 'Thriving at Work', finds that the UK faces a "significant mental health challenge at work." The report estimates the economic bill for poor workplace mental health to employers costs somewhere in the region of £33-42bn because employees are "less productive, less effective, or off sick."
'Thriving at Work' emphasises that employment can have both a positive and negative impact on an individual's mental health. The report therefore sets out six mental health 'core standards' that lay basic foundations for an approach to workplace mental health, with the aim of equipping organisations to not only address but prevent mental ill-health caused or worsened by work. The authors of the report foresee these standards as creating a framework for "a set of actions which we believe all organisations in the country are capable of implementing quickly." As such, organisations, irrespective of size, should pay close attention to the recommendations and consider adopting these standards if they are to provide the necessary support to employees experiencing mental health problems and combat declining productivity levels.
Examples of the proposed core standards include producing, implementing and communicating a mental health at work plan. Crucially, the report suggests the plan could also be linked to other plans or strategies within an organisation, including corporate social responsibility plans, and improving the physical workplace environment. A further core standard involves routinely monitoring employee mental health and wellbeing by using sickness absence data and staff surveys, among other tools. This will allow employers to improve communication with their employees and better understand the risks to employee mental health.
As these examples demonstrate, the report's core recommendations place a much greater onus on employers to implement effective mental health practices at all levels of their organisation, including during the recruitment process and, if necessary, extending tailored, in-house mental health support to organisations in their supply chain. Currently only four in ten organisations (39%) have policies or systems in place to support employees with common mental health.
In addition to the aforementioned core standards, the report makes a series of recommendations to government and other bodies such as the Health and Safety Executive ("HSE"), so that the UK can become a leading nation in improving the mental health of the population. For example, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require all employers to conduct risk assessments to identify any hazards in the workplace. However, the report suggests that employers are all too often focusing on the risks to physical health alone, and that employers should "risk assess and manage work-related mental ill-health in the same way as work-related physical health." The report therefore calls on HSE to adopt a more holistic approach by revising their guidance to raise employer awareness of their duties to assess and manage mental ill-health. Moreover, HSE are strongly advised to increase the focus on workplace mental health and safety during its inspections.
Although it remains to be seen to what extent the Stevenson/Farmer recommendations will interact with, and impact on, existing health and safety legislation and regulations (legislative changes are also recommended), commercial organisations must reflect on their current approaches to mental health by carefully considering any practical changes they need to make within their organisation, as opposed to merely promoting awareness around mental health issues at work. As the report emphasises, at a time when there is a national focus on productivity, the UK can ill-afford the rising costs of poor mental health. A more robust and practical approach to workplace mental health is now required.