The impact of COVID-19 and returning to work on mental health

United Kingdom

What should employers do to prevent and support mental health issues during this uncertain time?

In light of the current COVID-19 pandemic and its impact in the workplace, employers are increasingly seeing people being signed off work with “anxiety” or “stress”. According to the Centre for Mental Health at least half a million more people in the UK may experience mental ill health as a result of COVID-19. To the employer, the costs are already known to be huge. The HSE released their annual statistics for 2019 recently in which they highlight 12.8 million days were lost due to work related stress, depression or anxiety in 2018/2019. Workload, lack of support and changes at work are three of the main causes of work-related stress and these are all big issues just now. The ONS has reported that the number of adults in Great Britain experiencing depression has doubled during the coronavirus pandemic. This Law-Now will address what legal obligations employers have in respect of employees’ mental health and what employers can do to prevent and support mental health issues during this uncertain time.

What is mental health?

As the government commissioned Stevenson Farmer report explained, the way to view mental health is that we all have it and we fluctuate between thriving, struggling and being ill and possibly off work. A mental health problem is generally defined as poor mental health which continues for a prolonged period. Common mental health conditions include depression, obsessive-compulsive disorders and bipolar.

Work can have a huge impact on mental health. Whilst on the one hand it can promote well-being, it can also trigger mental health issues. For example workplace stress is reported to be one of the biggest causes of absence from work and it is also one of the most difficult issues to manage as an employer. It is therefore vital that, now, more than ever before, employers carefully consider their organisation’s approach to managing mental health in the workplace and take steps to prevent and respond to mental health issues.

Cause of the increase in mental health issues in the workplace during COVID-19

The increase in mental health issues in the last few months is said to be due to a variety of reasons, such as the fear of being infected by COVID-19, concerns about the health of loved ones, feelings of isolation and loneliness, new working environments creating an “always on” culture without work/life boundaries, fears about job securities/financial concerns and added pressures of parents/carers having to juggle work with caring/home schooling responsibilities.

Also, with the prospect of returning to the workplace post lockdown, symptoms of anxiety and stress may arise due to general health concerns about travelling into/being at work, uncertainty for what lies ahead and having to adapt to yet another new way of living. 

Employer’s legal obligations in respect of employees’ mental health

An employer’s legal obligations in respect of mental health of the workforce can be categorised as follows:

  • the employer duty of care from a health and safety perspective, and
  • the employer obligations under the Equality Act 2010 to not discriminate on the grounds of disability and to make related reasonable adjustments.

We discuss each one in turn below.

Employer’s duty of care from a health and safety perspective

So, what legal duties does an employer have from a health and safety perspective?

Employers have a legal duty so far as is reasonably practicable to ensure the health and safety of their workforce, including providing a safe place of work from a mental health and wellbeing perspective. In particular, an employer is obliged to:

  • undertake a suitable and sufficient risk assessment of health and safety risks including mental health. This is a continuing duty, which means that the risk assessment must be reviewed and if there is a significant change in relevant circumstances this should be recorded;
  • apply the principles of prevention e.g. developing a mental health policy covering, the organisation of work, working conditions, and any other factors relating to the working environment that may affect workers’ mental health; and giving appropriate instructions to the workforce about how to prevent risks to mental health; and
  • provide information to the workforce about any health and safety risks identified in the risk assessment. As part of this assessment, there is also an obligation on individuals to tell the employer if they reasonably consider something is a risk to their health and safety. So, it’s helpful to make sure that individuals are aware of their own obligation in that regard.

A breach of health and safety is a criminal offence with potential liability for both individuals and organisations. This potentially means unlimited fines for organisations and individuals; as well as imprisonment for individuals and disqualification of directors.

Aside from the regulatory aspects of  health and safety law, there is also the potential for civil liability. Claims can be made against the employer on the grounds of negligence; that they have failed in their common law duty to take reasonable care to prevent for example, work related stress. These are often complex claims from both the claimant and the employer’s perspective and costly, even if they do not ultimately proceed.

Disability discrimination issues

Whilst a worker might already have a mental health issue that the employer is aware of, which has been exacerbated by current circumstances, in other cases, the COVID-19 environment may be a trigger for a new mental health issue. To amount to a disability, a mental health issue has to have a substantial long-term effect on the individual’s ability to carry out normal day to day activities. There may be situations where a person is suffering from poor mental health which does not satisfy all the aspects of the definition of disability within the Equality Act 2010.

Employers should consider arranging an assessment by a mental health specialist if they are unsure whether an employee has a mental health condition, and it is essential to understand whether an employee is likely to be considered disabled for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010.

If the employee is classified as disabled, the employer’s obligations not to discriminate under the Equality Act 2010 apply i.e. they must not victimise, harass, or directly or indirectly discriminate against an employee because of their mental health illness, and should make reasonable adjustments to reduce or remove the related disadvantage to the employee.

Tribunal awards for disability discrimination claims are uncapped and an employee does not need to pay a fee to bring a claim.

Preventing risks from a discrimination and health and safety perspective

So, what can employers do to mitigate employer risks from a discrimination and health and safety perspective?

Well, we recommend that employers should:

  • have in place effective policies and systems to respond to any mental health concerns. This includes a mental health policy but could also include internal guidance for line managers and HR;
  • ensure risk assessments include mental health and reassess if/when the circumstances change;
  • ensure that managers are keeping in touch with the workforce and creating an open environment to discuss demands of their job and any mental health concerns without fear of stigma or reprisals;
  • keep a paper trail of both proactive and reactive steps taken, for reference in case issues arise at a later date;
  • train managers on how to spot and escalate potential mental health issues. Early action can make a significant difference in managing a mental health issue;
  • make sure the workforce is aware of where to find mental health support information both within the business and via external resources. Employers may also want to consider appointing a wellbeing champion to disseminate this information in a more personable, approachable way;
  • remind workers to take breaks/annual leave and their responsibility to look after themselves and their own mental health as much as possible; and
  • ensure there are adequate resources to dedicate time to managing the risks associated with mental health.

Dealing with mental health issues that employers have not been able to prevent

Now, whilst prevention is better than cure, it is inevitable that employers will not be able to prevent all mental health issues. So, what should an employer do if they are unable to prevent a mental health issue and an employee is signed off sick because of stress or other mental health related issues? We recommend that employers should:

  • keep in contact with the employee on a regular basis and update them on any key organisational communications or changes, and which steps are being taken in relation to them personally, to help reduce further stress and anxiety;
  • consider involving a mental health specialist rather than a non-specialised occupational health adviser;
  • make appropriate HR and line managers aware of what is going on once an employee has been assessed and the employer has made an informed medico-legal decision;
  • consider phased returns to work even where the employee is working from home and not returning to a physical workplace; and
  • ensure ongoing dialogue and regular contact following the return to work. This includes reviewing performance objectives and workload, and adjusting these where necessary.

Supporting the return to the workplace

As lockdown measures appear to be lessening, more employers are looking at which steps they need to take to begin to reopen workplaces. A COVID-19 risk assessment is a critical part of the return to work process, and this should consider the mental health and wellbeing of workers who wish to return, and those who remain homeworking, who may be experiencing feelings of isolation.

We are currently seeing the return in England to be gradual and phased, with those who can continuing to undertake a degree of homeworking. In Scotland non-essential offices remain closed with homeworking remaining the default until 14 September at the earliest. As well as the tips set out above which are still applicable in the return to work phase, here are some further practical tips for supporting the return to the workplace:

  • Communicating with staff is key to providing support as we gradually emerge from lockdown. It will also actively demonstrate the employer’s effort to meet its health and safety obligations, including recognition of circumstances that may provoke anxiety or stress symptoms. For example, managers should have regular check-ins with staff. Employers may also consider having a staff “buddy” scheme as a method to connect staff.
  • Keeping staff informed on the preventative measures that are either in place or will be implemented with a view to protecting them as far as possible from the risk of infection. Employers should also inform staff about how government guidance will continue to be monitored. Keeping staff up to date can help alleviate stress and anxiety symptoms.
  • Providing support and recognising that each person’s circumstances may present very different challenges and triggers for stress and anxiety. Employers may need to look on a case by case basis at how best to support workers who are experiencing issues.
  • Be alert to changes in a person’s behaviour which could be indicative of a more significant issue from a mental health perspective. Managers should be trained on the potential signs of poor well-being and mental health, as well as how to handle a disclosure of a mental health condition. If managers become aware of a potential issue, employers should not delay and arrange for the individual to be referred, as soon as possible, ideally to a clinical specialist so as to ensure the appropriate support can be provided from the outset.

Further information

ACAS has produced a helpful guide on Coronavirus and mental health at work which can be accessed here.  There is also HSE guidance on managing work related stress.

Mental health training 

CMS is running Mental Health Responder Plus online course on 8 September 2020 with consultant psychiatrists from Grespi, a medically-led occupational mental health service provider. The MHR Plus will provide guidance to HR and managers on how to deal effectively with employees suffering from mental health conditions, whilst navigating the complexities of clinical problems, duty of care, legal expectations, organisational challenges and business pressures. Click here for more information about the online course.

Life post lockdown

As businesses gradually move out of the pandemic, we will explore the various issues around mental health that employers should consider. We are keen to hear your stories and please do contact us at CMSEmployment.Team@cms-cmno.com if you would be interested in sharing how this pandemic has been or may be a platform for diversity or other change within your organisation, rather than a hindrance.