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Mental Health Awareness Week

May 16, 2024

This week marks the 23rd Mental Health Awareness Week, which is the national movement that brings the UK together to focus on improving our mental health. This week is a great opportunity to remind employers of the steps they could or should be taking to help ensure their employees feel adequately supported at work.

Unfortunately, recent figures indicate that there is a concerning lack of individuals in the UK who perceive themselves as having good mental health.

The stats

One in six people in the UK have struggled with mental health at some point.

Work can aggravate pre-existing conditions or bring on bring on new symptoms. 55% of workers say their employment has an adverse effect on their mental health and 71% of people would worry about telling their employer if they had a mental health condition.

Concerningly, between September 2021 and May 2022, the words ‘stress’, ‘mental health’ and ‘depression’ appeared in more than 12,000 early conciliation or employment tribunal cases. As such, mental ill-health is a growing concern for employers.

The law

Employers have duties under the Health and Safety at Work legislation to assess any risks in respect of mental health at work and to take steps to mitigate them. Similarly, duties might be engaged under the Equality Act 2010 if the individual has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out day-to-day activities. If these said disability provisions apply, employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to remove, reduce or prevent the obstacles a disabled employee or job applicant faces.   

The case

The recent tribunal case of Muir V Astra Zeneca UK Ltd 2024 assessed how employers should navigate behaviour exhibited by employees with poor mental health.

The Claimant, Mr Muir, had worked for AZ for 32 years as a leading scientist developing treatment for breast cancer. Mr Muir had experienced severe depression and anxiety for years which was documented in his medical records. He had subsequently taken time off work in 2018 due to stress and anxiety.

In 2020, Mr Muir’s manager expressed concern about Mr Muir’s mental health to another manager by email.  Subsequently, various informal complaints about Mr Muir’s conduct in the workplace were made over the course of the same year. These complaints reported Mr Muir raising his voice while speaking to colleagues, poorly worded emails which colleagues perceived to be rude and a general difficulty working with him.

AZ decided not to inform Mr Muir of these complaints. Instead of investigating the allegations made against Mr Muir under the ‘Employee Concerns Policy’, which focused on conciliation, the investigator focussed on disciplinary action against Mr Muir.

The disciplinary hearing concluded that Mr Muir had been bullying and harassing his colleagues which amounted to gross misconduct. He was dismissed without notice in 2020. Mr Muir’s appeal was rejected despite the appeal officer having access to the relevant medical records.

The outcome

Mr Muir made three claims to the Employment Tribunal (ET) and was successful with all of them. These were discrimination arising from disability, unfair dismissal and wrongful dismissal. 

When considering the tests for all three claims, the ET’s overarching concern was AZ’s mishandling of Mr Muir’s disability. They failed to provide Mr Muir with support, and they proceeded with a disciplinary process which completely disregarded Mr Muir’s mental health issues as a contributing factor for his behaviour.

This case does not set the precedent that disciplinary action cannot be taken when an employee’s conduct is affected by their mental health. Instead, it reemphasises the importance for employers to provide consistent and sufficient assistance to support to their employees.

What should employers be doing?

Examples of the types of reasonable adjustment employers can offer to employees struggling with their mental health include;

  • Making changes to the employee’s working pattern (flexible hours, increased breaks, leave for appointments)
  • Reduced workload or temporary changes in duties
  • Modifying work environments (home working or relocation of desks)
  • Redeployment
  • Modifying common policies and procedures within the office (policy changes for example adjustment to the absence management policy to accommodate fluctuating condition) 
  • Providing training or mentoring

Employers may think whilst implementing a few or all of the above, their job is done.

However, ACAS’ recent review found that too many businesses take a reactive stance, addressing issues as they arise. Training and policy changes seems to be a box ticking exercise rather than an active effort to support employees. Even those that do want to act often don’t have the means or knowledge to do so.

Employers should be focusing on creating a supportive workplace culture. They should make sure to be proactive in their communication and policies to show that they genuinely want to assist employees with their mental health. Employers also need to make more effort to follow through on their polices.

Further recommendations for employers who wish to go the extra mile, include:

  • Foster an environment where employees feel comfortable reaching out at the earliest signs of mental health challenges. This way employers can offer the utmost support and potentially prevent further deterioration.
  • Equip managers with tools to understand mental health struggles and how to deal with employees who approach them for help.
  • If possible, offer counselling through a scheme to support those suffering at work.
  • Make genuine efforts to discuss and implements workplace adjustments and modifications. Support your employees with sickness absence and return to work. 

Of course, when considering how to support employees, employers will be mindful of what is ‘reasonable’, particularly in relation to business needs, size and resourcing.  

Importantly for employers to remember, recent research has found that poor mental health costs UK employers up to £45 billion every year. By taking the right steps to support employees, these costs can be significantly reduced, while developing a happier, more productive workforce, built on a sympathetic culture.

If you have any questions on this on any other area of Employment law, please get in touch with Blackadders Employment Team, working in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow and across Scotland.

The opinions expressed in this site are of the author(s) only and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Blackadders LLP.

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