Why employers should engage more with employee mental health

For several years, employers have been urged to do more to look after the mental health of their workforce. Even before the pandemic, in January 2019, mental health at work was a primary discussion topic at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting accompanied by huge estimations of the financial impact, globally, in terms of lost economic output.

Scrolling forwards, the world of work has experienced one of its most volatile and changeable periods in response to the global Covid-19 pandemic. Although the protection of physical health has been at the forefront of many employer responses, the protection of workforce psychological health and safety has taken on a new awareness and focus, with a universality and breadth never before experienced.

As a result of this new landscape and shift in recognition, employers have been challenged to respond to and manage both severe mental health issues and the mental health and wellbeing of all workers on a day-to-day basis, with an increasing expectation among workforces and many legal systems that they will have strategies in place to do so effectively.

Increasing pressures around work in a pandemic

One of the many unexpected results of the global pandemic was the speed at which organisations were able to adjust to the new working landscape. For many, this has meant periods of working from home, often with consequent challenging working environments, isolation and a blurring of the line between work life and home life. Even those staff continuing to attend the workplace are likely to have experienced disruption, different workloads and also reduced contact with colleagues.

Such workplace factors, together with additional financial strain and uncertainty, relationship or family issues, health issues, bereavement or other factors precipitated by the pandemic, have resulted in increased pressures for a great number of workers, which have the potential to significantly impact mental health and wellbeing for a large proportion of people at all levels of seniority in a business.

Legal compliance and additional influences upon employer responses

Globally, the legislative approach to the preservation of mental health at work is often encompassed within an employer’s obligation to take reasonable care for their workers’ health and safety. Some countries have provided additional indirect regulation by addressing specific issues known to have a detrimental impact on mental health, such as working time or discrimination. For example, a number of jurisdictions have started to bring in new laws or guidance around the right to disconnect. Other jurisdictions have ensured legal protection directly aimed at protecting workers’ mental health. In Germany, for example, employers have a legal duty to appoint a company doctor to support them in the protection of occupational health, which includes advising on occupational psychology.

With the mental health challenges associated with remote or home working coming to the fore during the pandemic, a number of additional new laws or guidance to provide further protection specifically for remote workers have also been recently implemented. For example, in Spain, the pandemic has prompted a legal change requiring employers to ensure workers do not suffer any detriment or negative consequences as a result of remote working and that they have the right to disconnect outside of working hours.

Increased awareness of workforce psychological health has also seen a rise in external stakeholder focus and workers raising internal concerns where they believe that their employer’s actions or neglect have affected their mental health. This change in attitudes reflects a broader societal destigmatisation of mental health conditions, which is emboldening workers and the media to be more confident in raising such issues.

Global employers taking account of increased awareness of mental health and regulation are increasingly mindful in their strategies of not only the different obligations across jurisdictions, but also the different liability and avenues for action. In particular, the range of investigatory and enforcement powers by regulatory bodies and the potential routes for workers to enforce protection, including against dismissal or detriment through whistle-blower protection and the right to resign and seek legal redress through claims based on unfair (constructive) termination. Further, organisations are taking account of the range of potential penalties in the event of liability, including criminal sanctions.

Employers can expect to continue to see further regulation in this area, with a consequent impact on business protection and risk strategies and profiles. Many employers will hope to meet such internal and external expectations by embedding workplace mental health within their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) frameworks and reports. Typically, this involves disclosure of the metrics and programmes that they are using to measure and advance workplace wellbeing, including mental health, which can prove challenging for some. However, employers that successfully manage this process can expect to see improvements in their worker retention and recruitment outcomes, in addition to reputational and risk-profile benefits.

How should employers respond in practice?

Against the background of the renewed focus on employee mental health, employers are facing the challenge of devising or updating mental health strategies that are capable of both identifying potential risks to mental health at an early stage and ensuring effective measures to respond to the full range of employee mental health issues. In particular, reviewing and updating policies and risk assessments that have perhaps historically focused on the physical health of employees, to ensure that mental health is not overlooked.

Some practical and legal considerations when formulating a response are considered below:

  • Gather data and analyse: understand the legal position in relation to workforce mental health protection in all jurisdictions of operation, any information and consultation obligations, and undertake audits (adhering to any data privacy requirements) to analyse local and global practical mental health challenges and the effectiveness of existing measures.
  • Reduce the stigma: assessing the extent of mental health issues in an organisation can itself be problematic. Although an improving picture, many employees will hide their anxieties and mental illness, fearing they will face negative consequences if they speak out or reveal any sense of vulnerability. Employers can do much to change such perceptions and destigmatise mental health issues, recognising that just as with physical health, everyone has mental health. Facilitating discussion is an important first step, accompanied by actively promoting opportunity to do so and showing clear support for those involved.
  • Address cultural norms: taking account of the cultural environment will also be key to maximising the effectiveness of mental health protection measures in the global workplace. Due to such cultural considerations, workforces in some countries may be more receptive to mental health protection measures than others, meaning that a uniform strategy across all jurisdictions may not be appropriate.
  • Deploy a multi-faceted approach: those organisations that have successfully demonstrated effective mental health strategies have done so through a package of measures tailored to the organisation. In many cases, a twin-track approach of reactionary measures (such as the provision of employee assistance and medical benefits) and preventative measures (such as monitoring working practices, hours of work and the take-up of annual leave, and providing training and mental health toolkits) have been combined with a focus on ensuring that the organisation’s culture minimises harm. Being prepared to respond to employees who disclose a need for support is also critical to building trust in an effective mental health strategy.

Whatever the approach adopted, the importance of senior leadership, for example, in being effective role models, should not be underestimated.