This week is, of course, Mental Health Awareness Week. With every passing year there seems to be an increase in the willingness of people to share their own experiences in order to support and help others.
There are also many employers, large and small, committing openly to improving the mental health and wellbeing of their people. In the last year or two in particular, senior figures in high profile roles have spoken openly about their own experiences, which can help a culture of openness to cascade through an organisation. With mental health issues responsible for 15.8 million working days lost in the UK at the last official count in 2016, this makes sound commercial sense as well as being the mark of a compassionate and caring employer.
It is almost 24 years since disability discrimination became unlawful in employment, education and the provision of goods and services. The form and application of the law has changed significantly over that time, particularly in relation to mental health.
The original Disability Discrimination Act 1995 made it much harder for a mental illness to qualify as a disability than a physical one. Thankfully, over the years those barriers have been removed and psychological conditions are now subject to the same criteria as physical conditions, when it comes to the protection of the law at least.
There are many sources of information explaining the law (which is now part of the Equality Act 2010) and the duties this places on employers. Many employers (but by no means all) are aware of their basic obligations to prevent their staff from being discriminated against because of a disability and to make reasonable adjustments to a disabled employee’s working conditions, in order to enable them to carry out their work.
However, in many cases it is not at all obvious how an employer is expected to meet their obligations and balance these with the requirements of their business. There are many different psychological conditions, and a person who has one or possibly more of them may well be affected differently to another person with the same condition/s. The employee themselves will be the person who can best explain how their condition impacts on their day to day life and their experience of work.
As lawyers who work with both employers and employees in this area, we see how a mental illness impacts the person who has it in some cases, and how it impacts a person’s colleagues and the wider organisation in others. We often find that our employer clients have questions that go beyond the technical scope of the law and in those cases we can signpost to other sources of practical help and information, such as:
MHFA England – the place to find providers of Mental Health First Aid training. Many employers have key members of staff trained in recognising when someone is mentally distressed and how they might be supported.
Mind, the mental health charity – has a section on their website dedicated to mental health at work, including resources specifically for managers and HR professionals who are supporting employees with mental health challenges.
Remploy, a provider of specialist employment and skills support for people with health conditions (funded by the DWP). Services include the Access to Work Mental Health Support Service as well as factsheets and other resources.
Whilst awareness and understanding of mental health challenges and their impact on working life has undoubtedly increased, and we see a trend towards employers being more supportive, there is much work still to be done in this area and the law is often misunderstood. If you are an employer or an employee who has a question about disability rights at work, please do get in touch with us.