Sometimes we can get so wrapped up in risk assessments and other everyday health and safety management that we forget about the people involved.
H&S isn’t just about avoiding physical injury. The goal is to ensure the health and wellbeing of everyone onsite, to ensure they can do their job without risk or discomfort to themselves or others – this includes mental health.
In just a few short years, we’ve come a long way regarding mental health at work, but we still have a long way to go. One in four people in the UK will have a mental health problem at some point in their lives, potentially triggered or exacerbated by work.
Managers should be putting as much emphasis on mental health as they do on physical health if they want to achieve a truly effective health and safety culture.
Do employers have a legal obligation to protect the mental health of workers?
For a start, it’s worth highlighting that any business satisfied with doing the bare minimum the law requires probably isn’t all that bothered about their health and safety. However, it’s good for managers to refresh their knowledge of the law every so often to ensure they’re still on the up and up, no matter how invested they are in risk management.
The simple answer is that employers have a legal responsibility to ensure workers are not working under undue stress or pressure.
Anxiety and depression, the two most common mental health issues, can be triggered by issues at work. Over time, without treatment, stress at work can lead to physical and psychological damage.
That’s not good for the employee or the employer. It can lead to absenteeism, reduced productivity, and even physical harm due to distraction or exhaustion.
No matter whether work is causing the issue or exacerbating an existing issue, employers are legally required under legislation to manage it as they would any other risk.
According to the HSE: ‘Work-related mental health issues must be assessed to measure the levels of risk to staff. Where a risk is identified, steps must be taken to remove it or reduce it as far as reasonably practicable.’
Employers may also find that they have additional legal requirements under other legislation to protect workers’ mental health, such as equalities legislation.
The fact is that the HSE views mental health as no less important than physical health and expects employers to act accordingly.
What can employers do to protect the mental health of employees?
In 2017, the government commissioned the ‘Thriving at Work’ report, which laid out a framework of actions that employers and risk managers should implement to protect the mental health of workers. These guidelines state that employers must:
- Produce, implement and communicate a mental health at work plan which promotes good mental health for all employees and clearly outlines the support available for those who want or need it
- Develop mental health awareness among employees by making information, tools, and support accessible
- Encourage open conversations about mental health and support available, from recruitment and at regular intervals. Employees should be offered appropriate workplace adjustments if needed
- Provide employees with good working conditions and ensure they have a healthy work/life balance, as well as opportunities for development
- Promote effective people management to ensure all employees have regular conversations about their health and wellbeing with managers, supervisors, or leaders, and train and support managers to effectively manage mental health issues
- Monitor employee mental health and wellbeing based on available data, talk to employees and understand risk factors
What these very in-depth guidelines boil down to is this:
- Have a mental health plan
- Promote communication and open conversations about mental health by raising awareness and reducing stigma
- Implement a way to monitor actions and outcomes to inform future decisions
Another set of HSE Guidelines, the Management Standards, also includes a framework for managers to manage mental health at work better.
You can read more here.
What does this mean in practice?
Like most things in health and safety, managing mental health at work comes down to treating your employees like people, not statistics.
Those responsible for managing risks must be aware of who is working onsite, not just as a name on a clipboard, but as a person.
This is perhaps even more crucial when it comes to mental health. Often, safety managers can identify physical risks from a standard visual inspection and tackle them then and there. Unfortunately, mental health is very personal, and too many suffer in silence or fall through the cracks. Symptoms might not begin to show until it’s too late.
By treating employees as people and regularly talking with them person-to-person rather than communicating through PowerPoint, you can more easily identify struggling employees and provide the help and support they need.
Managers should also strive to ensure psychological safety onsite. Employees must feel comfortable coming forward with physical or mental issues without fear of reproach or punishment.
If an employee is not certain they can safely bring issues to your attention, they won’t, and the problem will continue to fester until something goes very wrong.
Fundamentally, suppose the employee’s mental health is impacted by work, such as poor management, excessive workload, or bullying. In that case, immediate action should be taken to remove or remedy the trigger.
Just as employees should not be expected to work under the threat of physical harm, no employee should be expected to do a job that harms their mental health.
Get in touch today via the contact form below to learn more about how better to manage people and mental health issues at work or discuss your health and safety needs.