As we mentioned in our previous blog, the Farmer/ Stephenson “Thriving at Work” Report has made a number of recommendations as to steps that businesses, the public sector and the Government can take to increase mental health and wellbeing within the workplace, with the aim not only of increasing the standard of mental health but also of reducing the overall cost to UK employers and the wider economy of poor mental health.  On the figures set out in the Report, this would be enough to offset the costs of Brexit several times over!

The core standards

The first thing suggested by the Report was to implement certain “mental health core standards“, although it accepts that these “can be delivered proportionately depending upon the size and type of business”.

These are that all employers should:

  1. produce, implement and communicate a mental health at work plan
  2. develop mental health awareness among employees
  3. encourage open conversations about mental health and the support available when employees are struggling
  4. provide employees with good working conditions
  5. promote effective people management
  6. routinely monitor employee mental health and wellbeing.

The Report recommends that industry groups provide guidance and support to help employers with these core standards and possible enhancements to them, and that there is greater employer transparency and accountability on workplace mental health.  It envisages a sort of “compare the market” site for EAP and occupational health services (although there is no word on whether or not you’ll get a free meerkat for every employee).  We will look into how realistic and/or ambitious these proposals are over the next few days, but it is worth noting that the Report does not suggest that employers do this in isolation – in particular, there are a number of significant recommendations for the Government which mean that there has to be a realistic chance that this Report will not vanish into the ether.

We will be considering the core and enhanced standards in more detail in a future blog.

Recommendations for steps the Government can take – the good, the bad and the almost mildly helpful

The Government recommendations include a number of things which will make employers’ hearts sing as well as some which may cause them to sink.

The good:

  • aligning the presently disparate occupational health and practical support available from Access to Work, the Fit for Work service and the other supporting NHS services – the idea being that a more cohesive, better-aligned support service will be able to meet the needs of users with poor mental health (as well as employers) better than the current fragmented version;
  • promotion of tax-relief for employers which invest in the mental health of their employees;
  • greater enforcement rights by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission against businesses which discriminate on mental health grounds (though precisely what this means in practice is left unclear in the Report).

These are laudable recommendations and should, if implemented, lead to a clearer landscape and more support for those employers which are willing in principle to help employees with poor mental health but currently find obtaining support difficult or confusing (e.g. few employers, or indeed lawyers, know about the support Access to Work can offer).

The almost mildly helpful:

  • the Government should develop a new flexible model for statutory sick pay to fit better with the increasingly common practice of a phased return to work.

This is a great idea in theory.  However in practice, the low rates of SSP will mean that for most workers, ‘topping up’ pro rata pay earned whilst on a phased return with SSP (and of course some employers choose to pay full pay whilst on a phased return) is of little value.  However, it does show some overdue creative thinking in the area of sick pay which can currently lead to issues of ‘presenteeism’,  i.e. employees turning up to work when, frankly, they shouldn’t.

The bad:

  • further legislative change to enhance protections for employees with mental health conditions, particularly those with fluctuating mental health conditions, the details of any such change again being unexplained.

This was the only jarring note in the Report for us.  We don’t agree that any extra legislative burden is necessary here – whilst the Equality Act has a number of flaws, the Tribunals have been working through these for some time and have given detailed and useful guidance on many aspects of it.  Ultimately, whilst employees with poor mental health do need protection, there are, and always will be, situations where employees (whether due to poor mental or physical health) are incapable of doing their job, even with adjustments.  Assuming that there are no other roles within their employer which they can perform, it has to be reasonable for that employer then to be able to terminate their employment, rather than be required to continue to employ them in a non-role.

We await more information on these proposals with interest.

We would welcome your views of the Report.  If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to contact us and also please feel free to join our group “mental health, stress and workplace wellbeing” to continue the conversation.