How can employers manage mental health in the workplace?

19 November 2019


Employers should strongly consider making mental health a key focus of their strategy to effectively manage workplace health

Over the past few years, employers have been made increasingly aware of issues relating to mental health in the workplace. A number of reports suggest there is a previously unappreciated high prevalence of work-related stress, anxiety and depression.

According to estimates from the Labour Force Survey contained within a recent annual report issued by the Health and Safety Executive (‘HSE’), there were approximately 602,000 cases of work-related stress, anxiety and depression in Great Britain in 2018/19, accounting for 44% of all work-related ill health. The report estimates that work-related stress, anxiety or depression resulted in 12.8 million working days lost which accounts for 54% of all working days lost due to ill health.

A UK-wide report on ‘Managing Mental Health in the Workplace’, conducted by Investors in People in 2018, identified Northern Ireland as having the highest percentage (85%) of employees claiming that they experience work-related stress. Additionally, Northern Ireland had the lowest percentage of employees who felt that their workplace supports their mental health (29%) and who believed managers took their mental health into account (33%).

What are the legal requirements for employers?

Under the Health and Safety at Work (Northern Ireland) Order 1978, every employer has a duty to "ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety at work of all his employees”. This duty extends to management of work-related stress, anxiety and depression.

Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (NI) 2000 (‘MHSWR’), businesses have a legal duty to undertake a risk assessments and to act upon the results. If the business employs more than 5 employees, then the risk assessment should be in writing. In the past, duties under MHSWR focused on physical well-being. It is now recognised that it applies equally to psychological health and well-being. In carrying out stress-related risk assessments, HSENI promotes the ‘Management Standards’ approach, which encourages employers to firstly assess risks in 6 key areas namely: Demands, Control, Support, Relationships, Role, and Change. These are 6 areas that can impact negatively on employee health if they are not properly managed. Once the stress risk factors are identified, the employer should decide who might be harmed and how; evaluate the risks; record the findings and then ensure that the action plans put in place are regularly monitored and reviewed to assess effectiveness.

What action can be taken by regulators?

HSENI advises that its approach in relation to tackling work-related stress is, firstly, to “provide advice, guidance and practical help towards a potential solution”. Supporting this approach, HSENI provides a Mental Well-being at Work Advisory Service which offers delivery of stress management programmes and assistance with the risk assessment process, including a step-by-step interactive guide on the application of the Management Standards.

HSENI may also take enforcement action, for example, in the form of an improvement notice. HSENI advises that this may be issued where “duty holders fail to show sufficient commitment to, or make sufficient progress in, assessing the risks from work-related stressors”.

Guidance and support for employers

ACAS (the equivalent statutory body to the LRA) issued guidance entitled “Promoting Positive Mental Health in the Workplace”, which provides practical advice to employers. The guidance attempts to create a benchmark for employers to abide by. Much of the guidance focuses on the use of plans and policies to champion education and awareness for both the employer and other employees to understand how mental health is being addressed in the workplace. Given the increased importance and awareness around the subject of mental health at work, many organisations are facilitating ways to assist employers with introducing or improving their approach to positive mental health in the workplace. Many organisations are now providing mental health first aid courses and training courses for line managers to help encourage them to openly discuss mental health in the workplace in an attempt to de-stigmatise the topic.

What action can you take?

  • Commit to tackling issues relating to mental health in the workplace;
  • Increase awareness among staff and encourage open conversations;
  • Undertake a stress risk assessment using the Management Standards approach;
  • Provide training and support for management;
  • Ensure a process of continual review and improvement.

If you require any further advice or information concerning this area, please contact a member of the Employment Team or Health and Safety Team at Carson McDowell.