As April draws to a close this week we see the end of Stress Awareness Month, which has taken place every April since 1992. This campaign was launched to raise awareness of the causes of stress and to destigmatise mental health issues.
Almost everyone experiences stress at some point in their lives, many of whom will struggle to manage the negative impact on their life; particularly, their health and wellbeing.
A new study published by ACAS on 9 March 2023 found that 3 out of 5 British workers (63%) feel stressed due to the rising cost of living we are all currently facing. Whilst it may not be immediately obvious if an employee is dealing with symptoms of poor mental health, there are some signs which could be observed:
- appearing tired, anxious or withdrawn
- increase in sickness absence or being late to work
- changes in the standard of their work or focus on tasks
- being less interested in tasks they previously enjoyed
- changes in usual behaviour, mood or how the person interacts with colleagues and customers
Those members of staff who work remotely may be at an increased risk as they cannot be as readily observed compared to those working on the premises.
Simply becoming more aware of stress and learning to apply the various coping mechanisms available can help an individual who is feeling overwhelmed by this emotion. In addition, it is well understood that if people become more aware of the causes and cures of modern day stress, and there is less shame involved, then they are more likely to reach out for help when they need it.
Is Stress a Disability?
The Equality Act 2010 (‘the Act’) defines a disability as a mental or physical impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out day-to-day activities (‘the Test’). Whilst not always immediately obvious, mental health conditions can be deemed a disability under the Act, subject to satisfying the Test.
Stress can have an impact on a person’s health, whether physically, mentally or emotionally. When allowed to build up over time, stress can develop into other health conditions including anxiety and depression, hormonal issues, fatigue and insomnia, high blood pressure, heart disease and many others.
Employers should have regard to the individual needs of each employee; there is no one-size-fits-all response to managing mental health in the workplace. In order to adequately assess each matter on a case-by-case basis, it would usually be of some benefit to obtain medical input such as a medical professional treating the employee, or by obtaining an independent report from an occupational health specialist which should set out recommendations for suitable adjustments.
It is likely that many people with mental health conditions will experience fluctuating symptoms, meaning that they may have ‘good and bad’ days. This should not be dismissed by employers as not being sufficient to satisfy the ‘adverse effect on day-to-day activities’ part of the Test, or overlooked under the mistaken belief that there is no risk of the condition being considered a disability.
Employers can make Reasonable Adjustments to an employee’s role or particular duties to remove or reduce a disadvantage related to someone’s disability.
However, employers should still consider introducing reasonable adjustments even in circumstances where the issue is not deemed a disability. Sometimes, making what could be simple changes to a person’s working arrangements or responsibilities could be enough to help them feel supported and valued, and consequently feel able to stay in work and work well.
The benefits of doing so could reduce sickness absences, as well as recruitment and training costs, and encourage a positive workplace culture which increases awareness and reduces stigma around mental health conditions.
What Reasonable Adjustments Can be Made?
When considering reasonable adjustments to support an employee, a discussion should first take place to understand the needs of that individual, and how the employer may be able to apply any changes to their circumstances.
Any agreed adjustments must be applied to their working environment whether on the premises or elsewhere, if they have a hybrid working arrangement. This could include changes to working patterns, methods of working and communication styles, making changes to how policies and procedures are applied (such as for sickness absences), workstation adaptations at home and in the office, or providing additional support such as a buddy or mentor.
Considering the common causes of work-related stress, it may be reasonable to adjust the deadline on a project, or review the individual’s workload volume and complexity. If they carry out customer facing duties or complaints handling which is exacerbating their stress levels, an employer could either reduce those responsibilities, amend their role or move them to an alternative role which would not negatively impact their mental health.
Rather than being reactive to an issue with an employee needing support or making requests for adjustments, employers can be pro-active in their approach by preparing their managerial staff with appropriate training, tailoring their policies and procedures in consideration of their application to those with mental health conditions, and creating a supportive workplace culture in which their staff feel able to speak up.
This may require a review of your existing staff handbook policies to ensure it uses clear language with a sympathetic approach to reduce the anticipated stigma around the topic. You may also need to ensure that your managers understand how the policies should be applied, particularly with reference to the possibilities for discrimination claims.
To discuss any of the issues raised in this article, or for advice on policies, training or any other employment law and HR advice, please contact Solicitor, Phoebe Gogarty, on 0191 307 7590 (firstname.lastname@example.org) or contact our Switchboard on 0191 384 2441 and ask to speak with any member of our experienced Employment team.
This article is for general information only. It does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal or professional advice. The law may have changed since this article was published and we would always recommend that you seek specific advice on any particular legal issue.