The legal framework for mental health and stress reduction in the workplace

With Stress Awareness Month behind us, our Employment Law team reflect on the rights of employers and employees relating to mental health and stress reduction in the workplace.

From an ESG perspective, workplace wellbeing has come into the spotlight in recent years and many employers have taken meaningful steps to reduce the feeling of stress felt by staff, such as:

While these have all taken a positive step in the right direction, are employers and employees actually aware of the legal case for stress reduction?

In our experience, this is not as widely understood as it could be – and now is the perfect time to remedy that.

Health and safety

The primary piece of legislation which protects workers’ health and wellbeing at work is the Heath and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.

It states that employers have a duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety, and welfare of their employees at work.

This obligation extends beyond physical health to encompass psychological wellbeing. Although not explicitly targeted at stress reduction, the 1974 Act does maintain that employers must carry out risk assessments to manage and mitigate the risks of work-related stress by implementing practical measures.

These measures could include adjusting workloads, providing support through counselling services, or ensuring a supportive management style.

That is not to say that the Act prohibits workplace stress or disputes. Instead, it creates an obligation to employers to ensure that stress levels are within reason and not caused due to improper behaviour such as harassment or failure to follow safety procedures.

Mental health discrimination

When stress becomes debilitating or results from (or in) a mental health condition, employees are likely to be protected under the Equality Act 2010.

Employees with mental health conditions that qualify as disabilities are protected from harassment or discrimination due to their situation, under the Act.

Employers are also required to make reasonable adjustments to the workplace or the employee’s job role to ensure they are not at a substantial disadvantage compared to non-disabled employees.

This may well include stress reduction if stress is unusually severe or results from standard business processes or working practices.

A note on definitions

The Equality Act states that employers must provide ‘reasonable’ adjustments for those with mental health conditions which qualify as disabilities.

Defining which conditions are covered by the Act can be a challenge, but generally includes those which are considered to be ‘disabling’ and which may be classed as a development or neurological condition despite its relevance to mental health, including:

In terms of supporting those with mental health disabilities in the workplace, reasonable adjustments may include:

Ultimately, it is important to note that ‘reasonable’ means different things depending on the situation and organisation, but generally means that other staff members won’t be disrupted and the measure is not prohibitively expensive or harmful to others.

The basis of a healthy workplace

Aside from the legal consequences of failing to follow requirements set out by these Acts, employers typically find that approaching employees through the lens of support and stress reduction leads to a more inclusive and productive working environment.

Recognising and addressing mental health issues not only aids in compliance but also contributes significantly to employee satisfaction and staff retention, which further reduces the risk of contravening employment law during the exit process.

Ultimately, employers who invest in mental health support send a clear message – they value their employees’ well-being as much as their contributions to the company.

For bespoke guidance on stress reduction and your rights and obligations, please contact our expert Employment Law team today.

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