Mental health at work: your rights and responsibilities

Jo Hooper

What’s the problem?

I hear from a lot of people who are scared to open up about their mental health at work for fear of being judged as less capable, because they’re worried they’ll miss out on exciting projects or promotions, or even because they think they will be fired.

I also know many who have experienced – myself included – a boss conflating a health issue with a performance issue. A mental health issue can impact your performance at work, but it isn’t at its heart a performance problem. You’re ill. 

We also know that only 30% of managers feel able to talk about mental health in the workplace, so it’s not surprising that managers aren’t always sure how to support their people.

Mental health at work – your rights and responsibilities

So, what are your rights as someone with a mental health condition? And what is your role as an employer and how do you fulfill that? 

Firstly, a quick reminder that as an employer you are not there to diagnose, therapise or counsel your staff – your role is to create safe and supportive working conditions and support your people to be their best.

THE EQUALITY ACT

The Equality Act is the main place where your rights are set out. 

It says that if you:

  • Have had a mental health condition for 12 months or more; OR
  • Have been diagnosed with a mental health condition that is likely to last 12 months or more; AND
  • That condition affects your ability to carry out day to day activities, EVEN IF
  • You take medication to manage the condition, or the condition hasn’t affected you consistently throughout that time (ie. peaks and troughs of feeling great and terrible)

Then, under the Equality Act, you could be considered to have a disability. 

I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression in July 21017, at its worst, my anxiety and depression stopped me from being able to sleep, converse, make decisions, get out of bed and work – all day to day activities. 

My mental health issues haven’t consistently affected me over the past 18 months, there have been periods where I have felt fine, but there have also been very low periods.

Therefore, under the Equality Act, I am considered to have a disability.

Your rights under the Equality Act

A disability is what’s known as a ‘protected characteristic’ – this means that If you fit the description of having a disability, then it is illegal for you to be discriminated against due to your mental health.

In the workplace, this means that:

  • A person’s mental health issues can’t be taken into consideration when deciding whether to offer them a job
  • Your mental health issue(s) can’t be considered when assessing your performance
  • Your employer can’t consider your mental health when assessing you for a promotion, pay rise etc
  • You cannot be fired due to your mental health issue

If you are considered to have a disability under the Equality Act, you have a right to request changes at work to help you manage your mental health – these are called ‘reasonable adjustments.’

There isn’t a definitive list of reasonable adjustments set out in the Act, but if when you’re making a request to your employer, consider what would help you to manage your mental health in the workplace, you might want to think about:

  • Working hours – do you need to reduce your hours for a period of time to give you more time to focus on managing your mental health?
  • Working pattern – if, for example, your anxiety is triggered by busy and crammed commuter trains, would it help you to manage those anxiety symptoms if you started earlier or later, to avoid the busiest trains?
  • The working environment – do you need a quieter workspace when you’re feeling particularly triggered? Do you need somewhere to retreat to for a short period of time when you’re really struggling? You can ask for changes to the space you work in to help you manage
  • Are you in the right role at the moment? You might want to consider asking to be moved into a different role for the short (or long) term, to take some of the pressure off

I help people figure out what changes they need to make to help them better manage their mental health at work as part of my Inhale and Breathing Space mentoring. If you could do with some help in this, please do get in touch.

I also have a one-off group mentoring programme – Compass – to help you reset your boundaries with work. Through a reflective journal, support notes from me and a group online mentoring session I’ll walk you through how you can re-establish your Service Level Agreement with your work, whether you work for yourself or the man/woman.

What does the Equality Act mean for employers, when it comes to mental health?

As an employer, it can be so hard to know how to support people with their mental health in the workplace, as it’s a sensitive, personal issue.

But, you also have a duty of care to your people, particularly if they’re considered as having a disability under the Equality Act.

Under the Act, employers can’t discriminate against those with a mental health issue that could be considered a disability and have a responsibility to consider requests for reasonable adjustments to help them manage.

My advice to employers is:

  • Be proactive – if you don’t know someone has a long-standing mental health issue, you can’t support them and carry out your responsibilities under the Act
  • Be open – to enable people to talk to their managers about their mental health, you need to cultivate an open culture around mental health at all levels. Awareness raising comms and engagement campaigns will help, but managers and leaders also need to demonstrate they want to talk about these issues
  • Listen – ask your people what they need and where possible, try to make those changes – you could use something like a Wellbeing Recovery Action Plan as a template for short term changes or support
  • Try not to fall into formal mode – paperwork, application forms, additional people in meetings and excess process can be overwhelming and scary when you’re feeling vulnerable – try to balance the need to follow particular steps with the needs of the person and keep things as informal as possible
  • Review things – set expectations of when you will come together and review the changes, or the action plan together – you might want to consider reducing the changes after an initial period, or the person might need different support as they progress

Grappling with this stuff isn’t easy, I work with leadership teams to help you figure out what approach works for your business and your people. 

I am working with All Things IC to run a Mental Health Leadership Masterclass on 6 April. 

This one day session will help you understand your role as an employer, set an approach for your organisation for how you will support people’s mental health, resources to support your people and an understanding of the reality of what it’s like to manage your mental health at work. 

If this post has resonated with you as an employer, please do check out this masterclass – it could be for you.

 

One of the things that can help you as an employer to understand the support your people might need is hearing from those with lived experience. That’s what my email series, The Connection, does. I share truths from people who’ve struggled with their mental health at work, along with advice for people in similar situations and employers.

You can find out more and sign up here.

 

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