The Invisibility of Mental Health Issues in the Workplace – What employers need to know

A business owner recently informed me that an employee, absent due to stress at work, should be in the workplace as he “didn’t have a broken leg” and he suspected there was “nothing wrong with him”.  Unfortunately this view, by some employers, still prevails, ie if you cannot see an illness then that person really cannot be ill. This is World Mental Health day and it is a good time to reflect on mental health issues in the workplace.  It is estimated that the costs to the UK economy of over £100 billion per year, are as a result of various mental health issues which include, loss of productivity, sickness days and poor performance.


There are still invisible barriers to overcome in the workplace when it comes to mental health.  Whilst it is easy to see that someone has broken their leg using crutches/a cast, a mental health issue is not so easy to identify. In addition, there still remains a fear of stigma.  Employees often fear that if they reveal a mental health issue to their employer, that that would adversely affect their career progression and/or, salary and that they would be treated differently because of it.

Legal points for employers to bear in mind

  • Employers need to be mindful of ensuring that an employee does not continue to work, when to do so would be endangering their health, that could invite possible personal injury claims from that employee;


  • A mental health condition can constitute a disability under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, if certain conditions are fulfilled. If the employee is disabled, then there would be a duty for the employer to make reasonable adjustments to support that employee. Remember that a failure to deal with the issue would risk a possible disability discrimination claim and compensation in such claims is uncapped;


What should employers do?

  • As set out in the campaign “Heads Together”, communication is the fundamental starting point. Employers need to be open to talking to employees about mental health and to encourage them to raise issues with HR/Line Managers. Employees need to know that they will be taken seriously and that any problems identified will be tackled;


  • Employers should review and update any policies and procedures, especially any stress at work policy to ensure that they are comprehensive and easily accessible by employees;


  • Employers should consider carrying out employee surveys on mental health issues and also consider carrying out risk assessments for specific roles. They should then remove/reduce any causes of stress in the particular role as a result;


  • Employers should train their managers on awareness of mental health issues. Their manager will often be the person with whom the employee initially speaks, so it is crucial that the manager is aware of how to handle the issue to include offering support, time off work if needed etc;


  • It is very important that an employer stays in touch with an employee who is absent from the workplace. When they return, the employer should meet with them and consider a possible phased return to work and also whether any adjustments need to be made to their duties.

While great care has been taken in the preparation of the content of this article, it does not purport to be a comprehensive statement of the relevant law and full professional advice should be taken before any action is taken in reliance on any item covered.