Business Law: Firms should be prepared to deal with mental health issues, says Richard Wood

Richard Wood of Employment and Advice Solutions (EAS).

Richard Wood of Employment and Advice Solutions (EAS). - Credit: Archant

With England cricketer Jonathan Trott having recently flown home from the Ashes tour in Australia with a stress-related illness, it might be a good moment for employers and workers to refamiliarise themselves with their firm’s own policies on long-term ill-health absence and, in particular, those parts relating to mental health problems.

For millions of people who suffer, often quietly, under the cloud of depression, stress and anxiety, it can lead to debilitating personal and professional problems, often resulting in long periods of absence from work. Such absences have ongoing and serious consequences for the employee and employer; for both, what is important is that the employer has good procedures and practices in place.

It is the nature of mental ill health that the sufferer may well be reluctant to discuss the matter, fearing the “pull your socks up speech” form their boss, who may have little or no personal experience of such health issues. Training management to properly identify (and avoid) genuine mental health problems is crucial, and having access to professional support from an occupational health services, whether in house or otherwise is highly advisable.

Under the Equality Act 2010, mental illness which continues for a number of months may well qualify as a “disability” which places upon an employer an obligation not to discriminate on grounds relating to the disability, but also the requirement to consider the implementation of reasonable adjustments which might accommodate the person suffering from the illness in the workplace.

Commonly adopted measures includea phased reintroduction into work, involing reduced hours and lighter duties, but, in order to understand what reasonable adjustments might be likely to make a difference, the importance of fully understanding the nature of the illness, and its causes, cannot be over-stated.

Staff will need to be given a reasonable amount of time to recover and return to work but if a return to work is not an immediate prospect, and the employee has been away from work for between six and12 months, then the employer may well wish reluctantly to consider dismissal due to long-term absence.

As long as to the employer obtains the best possible medical information, and engages in reasonable consultation with its employee, then no reasonable employer can be expected to keep an absence worker on the books indefinitely. The employment tribunals have repeatedly restated this view.

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: : Richard Wood is a specialist in employment law with EAS.