Event summary: The employer’s obligations to manage worker health and wellbeing

Written on 16 Mar 2017

In our panel session on 14 March 2017, chaired by Osborne Clarke’s health and safety expert Mary Lawrence, we explored questions relevant to employers about legal duties and obligations in relation to mental health.

We heard from the HSE as to its renewed focus on ‘health’ as well as ‘safety‘ and its support for business sectors looking at developing their own standards and best practice, providing the example of the Construction Leadership group and its ‘Mates in Mind‘ programme focusing on mental health.

From the issues raised at the session we have outlined some top tips below that employers may find useful when managing mental health and wellbeing issues in the workplace. This is followed by a more detailed summary of what was discussed at the session.

Top Tips

  1. Talk about the issues within your organisation.
  2. Take action on what comes out from those conversations.
  3. Ensure junior managers are well equipped to talk about mental health, and know how to help colleagues, even if it’s just pointing them in the right direction.
  4. Review your culture – is it supportive, diverse and open?
  5. Where appropriate, include the families of employees in your discussions.
  6. Where an issue arises, take action quickly.
  7. Finally, stop “admiring the problem” and start tackling it.

1. What do we mean by mental health in this context?

Mental health is a “spectrum term”. Most people sit somewhere in the middle of a spectrum, which is broad, but at some time most people will experience symptoms of poor mental health at either side of that health range. For most, those instances will be temporary and they will only become an illness where they are persistent or severe.  Thankfully, only a minority of people at the ends of the spectrum will end up suffering from longer term problems.

2. What are the modern day challenges for business?

We heard from the panel that today people are working harder and for longer hours.  Whether ‘resilience’ training is now the ‘done’ thing is very much up for debate.  Instead, there will increasingly be a focus on business leaders to proactively manage risk.

Agile working is both a solution and a challenge.  We discussed the challenges of isolation that agile working could pose but the opportunity for busy workers to manage their time commitments.

Interestingly, research has shown that new technologies (such as social media and instant messengers) can prove just as effective, and often more effective, in allowing agile workers to remain connected to colleagues as meeting face to face. This may be more effective for those more comfortable with social media, such as millennials, but should not be seen as a one-size-fits-all solution.

3. Managers and supervisors play a huge role in addressing the problem in the workplace… but they need training

We heard from Dr Neil Greenberg of Kings College that research carried out in the military suggests that where a junior manager (in that case, a sergeant or similar) took an interest in their soldiers’ mental health, the soldiers experienced up to a tenfold improvement in mental health over those soldiers whose junior manager simply cared for their other wellbeing needs. Of course, not all managers have strong communication skills, but arguably they should and as Louise Aston, from Business in the Community, said “you can teach someone to dance”.

Manager and supervisor training was a running theme of the event.  Louise Aston noted that while line managers often acknowledge that it is their responsibility to make sure their staff are well, including in relation to mental health, they are often ill-equipped to deal with the challenges mental health presents. This has been supported by a YouGov survey organised by Business in the Community, which found that only 22% of junior managers had adequate training to deal with the complexities of mental health issues. The most important thing in tackling this is providing junior managers with adequate training – they need to understand what to do, and this means understanding each member of the team and what makes them tick.

A simple starting point in tackling this is to train managers how to start a conversation with their colleagues about this, but if they do ask how a person is doing, they should be able to act on the answer given. Victoria Parry, an employment partner at Osborne Clarke highlighted how often it is that  managers are concerned about how to talk about mental health issues and do not communicate effectively with an affected team member, which can exacerbate the problem.

4.”The final taboo in the workplace”: getting rid of the stigma of mental health in the workplace

Traditionally, because mental health hasn’t been talked about, it has been difficult to manage in the workplace.  The first step therefore is to provide a platform or way to allow mental health to be openly talked about, in the way physical health is. Steve Hails from Thames Tideway provided his insight into how they are doing this at Mates in Mind, including introducing awareness training and all levels within the construction industry.

Dr Neil Greenberg told us that the two methods of “contact” presentations (i.e. where someone senior stands up and talks about their own experiences with mental health challenges) and “protest” (where a company openly talks about mistakes it has been made in this area and what it is doing to address them) are both effective tools.

In certain industries, the stigma surrounding mental health is far more of a challenge.  We heard from Steve Hails that in the construction industry, workers are six times more likely to take their own life than die as a result of a fall from height.  “Accept it” he said, and develop a solution, rather than challenging the statistics.

4. Wellbeing is a board level problem

“Wellbeing” often does not currently hold a very prominent position on corporate agendas. There does, however, seem to have been a tipping point, where companies and organisations are now accepting that “wellbeing” is not a concept that is going to go away. Not tackling it is beginning to make businesses seem out of touch.

From a legal perspective, it is vital to ensure that all managers understand the importance of communicating any wellbeing concerns raised to them to the appropriate people, and for those people to act on it. If not, this could lead to discrimination and unfair dismissal claims.

Through raising wellbeing up an organisation’s agenda, it should be enabled to make decisive choices about under whose remit it will fall. Traditionally, it is unclear whether it should sit with HR broadly, on more narrowly under occupational health. Organisations should make a clear decision as to who has overall management control of their wellbeing agenda, depending on the nature of the organisation and the various skills of management.

Wellbeing initiatives and resources to help you

HSE’s ill health strategy

HSE’s management standards on stress

Five Ways to Wellbeing

Mental Health, We’re Ready to Talk

March on Stress StRAW training for peers

Mates in Mind