Mental health at work
Mental health at work
What is mental health?
There is no legal definition of mental health, but is generally understood to be the emotional state in which you are able to cope with the normal pressures of everyday life. This will include your mental health condition and mental illness.
Your mental health can fluctuate at any time, either due to personal circumstances like an illness or family bereavement, or because of work issues such as being bullied by your line manager (there is more on this below).
Very often, a mental health condition can result in stress, anxiety and depression.
How do mental health issues arise in an employment law context?
- Where work has caused the employee to develop the mental health problem, whether this is as a result of bullying, a prolonged period of stress or even discrimination. In the first scenario, an employee may have a claim for personal injury, as well as employment law claims.
- Where someone has a pre-existing (or non-work related) mental health condition, and work either brings on or aggravates existing symptoms.
What factors at work can cause mental ill health?
The most common issues causing a mental illness at work include:
- Not coping with workloads or demands;
- Being bullied or harassed by your line manager;
- Being on the receiving end of performance allegations and/or a performance improvement plan (a “PIP”);
- Facing disciplinary proceedings for misconduct;
- Not receiving the appropriate support or training.
What are your employer’s legal obligations where you have a mental health condition?
An employer is usually able to assume that employees can withstand the normal pressure of working life- unless it is on notice that there is a particular vulnerability, for example a history of mental illness.
Your employer does, however, have specific legal obligations where your mental health condition amounts to a “disability” under the Equality Act 2010. This would be the case where you have a “physical or mental impairment” which has a “substantial and long-term adverse effect” on your “ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”.
You should note:
-the impairment does not have to be clinically recognised, nor does it need to be caused by an illness. It is the effect of the impairment you have which is most important.
– Long-term” means more than 12 months, likely to last more than 12 months, or likely to last for the rest of your life.
– Substantial” is a low hurdle and means more than minor or trivial.
-“Normal day-to-day activities” includes normal day-to-day work activities.
Certain conditions are excluded from protection, such as addiction to alcohol or any other substance, but they may be covered if accompanied by another underlying condition such as depression which does meet the definition.
Assuming your mental health does amount to a disability, it will amount to unlawful discrimination if your employer treats you unfavourably because of your disability, or something arising in consequence of your disability. This is known as “disability discrimination“.
A failure to provide “reasonable adjustments” to help you continue in your role can also amount to disability discrimination under the Equality Act. Whether the adjustment is reasonable, or whether one is made at all, will depend on the size and resources of your employer. Reasonable adjustments (which should be regularly reviewed) would include the following:
- Allowing a more flexible working pattern;
- Working from home;
- Changes to your role (perhaps with less responsibilities as a temporary measure);
- Removing you from close proximity to working with any colleagues who are bullying or harassing you;
- Increased support;
- Extra training.
Can stress resulting from difficulties at work amount to a disability?
If your stress has been caused only by a reaction to difficulties at work, it is unlikely in itself to be classed as a disability. This is because your unhappiness, or a grievance against your employer is not automatically considered to be a mental impairments that affects your day to day normal activities. The position will be different where you have impairments such as low mood, anxiety or clinical depression, which is more likely to be classed as a disability.
Ultimately, the question whether there is a mental impairment will be one for an employment tribunal to determine. The tribunals have made it clear, though, that labels such as “stress”, “depression” and “anxiety” cannot be relied upon alone to substantiate that an employee suffers from a disability within the meaning of the Equality Act. There will often need to be appropriate medical evidence and each individual case will be different.
What claims can I make?
The main claims available are:-
- disability discrimination;
- constructive dismissal (this is a claim resulting from a breach of the implied term of trust and confidence);
- a claim for personal injury for losses flowing from your employers’ lack of duty of care towards you- and that it was reasonably foreseeable that such losses would occur.
How long do I have to make a claim?
There is a strict time limit of 3 months less one day from the last act of discrimination by your employer, to commence a tribunal process. There can be a continuing act of discrimination (as opposed to a last act) if there is a permanent adverse treatment against you by your employer.
For constructive dismissal claims, there is a time limit of 3 months less one day from the date that your paid employment ended. This will depend on whether you resign with immediate effect, or work your notice.
For personal injury claims, the time limit is 3 years from the date you became aware of the personal injury.
What can my employer do to support people with mental health issues in the workplace?