Mental health issues have been at the forefront of news and social media headlines in recent months, with many high profile celebrities involved in raising awareness and getting people talking about a topic which is still surrounded by stigma.

One in four of us will be affected by a mental illness, such as depression or anxiety, at some point in our lives. That may be down to work related stress, or it may be as a result of something going on at home or elsewhere in our personal lives. With the ever increasing use of technology comes added pressures, in both our personal and professional lives. There are certain industries which will inevitably come with some element of pressure and stress, but the balance can so easily tip from normal everyday pressures which motivate and produce results, to work related stress which affects all aspects of an employee’s every day life.

Work related stress accounts for 45% of all working days lost according to a Labour Force Survey and is undoubtedly an HR issue. However, what about an employer’s specific duties under health and safety law? Is there an obligation to ensure that the risk of exposure to stress is reduced to a reasonable level, and if an employee is suffering from work related stress or other form of mental illness, is an employer under a duty to take steps to address that?

The answer in short is yes to both questions. Whilst there are no specific duties placed on employers to reduce the risk of exposure to work related stress, the general duties under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 apply equally to mental wellbeing as they do to physical injury and health. The HSE defines stress as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them”. An employer’s failure to manage stress in the workplace could lead to lasting damage to an employee’s physical and mental health.

In simple terms the law says that employers must conduct a suitable and sufficient risk assessment and implement appropriate control measures to reduce work related stress. Aside from a person’s working environment leading to work related stress, other human factors should not be ignored when assessing the risks involved in a particular task, and whether or not an employee’s mental state could increase the risk of an accident or incident occurring. Think about high risk industries such as manufacturing or oil and gas – if an employee is struggling with mental health issues then his or her mind may not fully be on the task at hand. In those circumstances should they really be doing the task at all?

The key for employers must be to know how to recognise when someone is struggling, and what they can do to help. Creating the right culture, where employees feel they can be open about their mental health issues, or that they know there is a network they can turn to for support, means that employers can more readily recognise when one of its employees might be suffering from work related stress or other mental illness.

Despite the apparent lack of enforcement in this area, the law is there is protect employees and should not be ignored. The fact that conversations around mental health is more than getting started can only be a good thing, and if employers put in place the right initiatives to ensure the mental health and wellbeing of their employees, then so much the better. After all, a happy workforce is (hopefully) a safer and more productive workforce.

The impact of mental health on the future workforce is further discussed in our recent employment report - click here to read.