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How mental ill health can become an issue at work

On World Mental Health Day 2019 we look at some astonishing facts and figures surrounding mental health in the workplace. Joanne explores ways in which employers can be better equipped to deal with an employee who has a mental illness.

Some startling facts

  • In 2016/17 stress accounted for 49% of all working days lost.
  • 1 in 5 employees take a day off for stress but 90% of them give a different reason for their absence.
  • 84% of UK line managers believe they are responsible for employee wellbeing, but only 24% have received training.
  • 49% of line managers requested basic training in common mental health conditions.
  • In 2017 more than 15 people per day committed suicide. People who identify as LGBT + are more likely to have suicidal thoughts.

Many employers feel ill-equipped to deal with an employee who has a mental illness (most commonly depression or stress-related).  Employees can be reluctant to discuss it because of the stigma that, unfortunately, still surrounds mental illness. They may also find it difficult to articulate what the condition is and how they are affected.

Given the impact of mental ill health on employees and businesses, employers must wake up to this issue. Prevention is better than cure and managers/supervisors should be trained on recognising mental health issues and equipped with appropriate policies and procedures.

An employee’s mental ill health most commonly becomes a workplace issue when they are:

  • on long term or intermittent sickness absence
  • underperforming
  • alleged to have committed misconduct.

There are common features to each of these situations.

In deciding how to handle the issue and given the time it takes to obtain any medical report, the employer should not delay in discussing with the employee the nature and seriousness of their ill health and any medication. If the employee is absent from work a fit note will specify the condition and any arrangements for return to work. Further medical evidence is usually necessary to help the employer and employee understand how the medical condition affects their ability to carry out their duties (or has caused the alleged misconduct) and the prognosis.

Having obtained the appropriate consent from the employee, a medical report can be obtained from their GP, a consultant or occupational health physician. There is usually a fee of around £500 – £1500 and it can take a few weeks for a medical examination and then a written report to be produced. The doctor should be asked to comment on whether the employee is disabled as defined by the Equality Act 2010 and advise on reasonable adjustments, so the employer can comply with its legal obligations.

Whether or not the employee is disabled as defined, the employer should consider adapting its processes. This may include being sensitive in the tone of any communication, allowing the employee more time to respond or to achieve the required standard in a performance management situation. Meetings may take place offsite at a neutral location or the employee’s home. With the employee’s consent, it may be helpful to involve a friend or relative in any formal proceedings rather than a work colleague or where the employee on sickness absence refuses to have direct work conduct.

If the medical condition is unknown to the employer until the alleged misconduct or under performance is being addressed, it should be flexible e.g. adjourning a disciplinary hearing so that the employer can understand the impact of the medical condition or medication, on the allegations.

If dismissal is contemplated then alternatives should be considered such as alternative employment, early retirement, or whether cover is available under any permanent health insurance scheme. These options may not be appropriate where dismissal is on grounds of misconduct.

Further advice on this topic can be obtained from organisations such as Acas. For specific employment law advice to include on the Government’s consultation proposals to reduce ill health related job loss, please contact your usual Morrisons adviser or Emma McLoughlin, Senior Associate Solicitor by email on [email protected] 


Although correct at the time of publication, the contents of this newsletter/blog are intended for general information purposes only and shall not be deemed to be, or constitute, legal advice. We cannot accept responsibility for any loss as a result of acts or omissions taken in respect of this article. Please contact us for the latest legal position.

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