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Ignoring mental health issues can be costly

Following the launch of CN’s Mind Matters campaign and with mental health a hot topic, what are the potential legal implications for companies that ignore its importance?

Awareness of mental health issues has never been higher thanks to high-profile campaigns such as CNs Mind Matters.

Much has been written about the health and safety problems poor mental health can create in the workplace, but we want to highlight the potential cost if employers and employees ignore the risks.

First, a failure to recognise and deal with poor mental health can give rise to employment claims.

An employee (or job applicant) with a mental impairment may be legally disabled for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010 where their impairment has a substantial and long-term effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

Employers who do not meet their obligations to make reasonable adjustments, or who discriminate against an individual on the grounds that they are disabled, could face a grievance or an employment tribunal claim.

Potential for disputes

Second, not recognising mental health issues or not supporting those who suffer can create problems on site and lead to construction disputes. Unwell employees might, for example, suffer low morale, take time off or cause delays – all of which have a knock-on effect on co-workers.

“Small issues can quickly escalate into disagreements, omissions can accumulate and, before you know it, a notice of adjudication has landed on a director’s desk”

Projects involve multiple parties, complex contracts and conflicting interests, and can by their very nature make workers susceptible to stress, anxiety and depression. Some thrive on the adrenaline rush caused by site issues; others succumb to the pressures.

They might have made a mistake and be too worried about keeping their job or their reputation to report it. They might be behind with record-keeping.

Such behaviour can, if not checked, lead to disputes. If appropriate action is not taken quickly, small issues can quickly escalate into disagreements, omissions can accumulate and, before you know it, a notice of adjudication has landed on a director’s desk.

By that stage, the individual responsible might have been worrying about the problem for weeks and – if still at work – might be in urgent need of support and possibly treatment.

How can you protect your staff’s and your own health, and avoid the inevitable costs and lost time that accompany disputes? Have a look at these practical steps:

Mental health guidance for employers

  • Introduce a mental health policy, or otherwise cover mental health explicitly within your equal opportunities policy. Consult about its contents with your staff as well as with professionals.
  • Work with mental health charities and read the HSE’s guidance (see Guidance for managers and Line Managers’ resource: a practical guide to managing and supporting people with mental health problems in the workplace) to better understand the issues and how they affect your workforce.
  • Train some staff as mental health first aiders.
  • Train all staff on mental health issues and how to recognise and deal with them (including as part of any sickness absence management process).
  • Lead from the top: set examples on how to deal with mental health issues when they arise and promote equal opportunities at all levels of the organisation.
  • Provide discreet and readily available services for those who need support and treatment.
  • Foster a culture of openness in which employees feel able to report mistakes without fear of retribution.
  • Encourage individuals to take responsibility for their actions and ensure their line managers are taught to offer support with resolving the issue.
  • Allow those affected sufficient recovery time. Manage their return to work carefully to guard against them being stigmatised or discriminated against.
  • Seek medical advice (for example, from an occupational health adviser, or the employee’s doctor) where appropriate to better understand the employee’s condition and enable you to make informed decisions.

Mental health guidance for employees

  • Lobby your employer to implement a mental health policy and train staff on the issues.
  • Look out for warning signs in yourself that you are suffering from stress, anxiety or depression. Are you indecisive or avoiding difficult people or jobs, discussions or a challenging job, or just not coping? If yes, see your doctor and seek help either through your organisation or one of the many mental health organisations.
  • If you’ve not done something or made a mistake, act as soon as you can to rectify the issue: work out a solution or seek help from a fellow colleague, manager or one of the HR team – whoever you feel comfortable with. Small mistakes can lead to bigger issues for you, your employer’s client and the project.
  • If a colleague’s stress levels are rising, do not ignore them. Provide support in whatever way you think appropriate. A chat might be all that is needed. If the health and safety of the team and other workers on the project is at risk, have a word with a senior manager.

Akin Akinbode is a partner in the construction team at Dentons

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