This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (15 to 21 May 2023), hosted by the Mental Health Foundation, is focused on the theme of anxiety.
Anxiety is more than just feeling stressed or worried. It can manifest as a persistent and intense sense of fear or unease, often accompanied by physical symptoms such as a rapid heartbeat, restlessness, and difficulty concentrating. Anxiety can affect anyone and when it does, it can significantly impact a person’s daily life and overall well-being. A survey carried out by the Mental Health Foundation found that a quarter of adults felt their anxiety prevented them from doing things they wanted to do some or all of the time.
A large chunk of our work as employment lawyers involves advising either individual clients who are experiencing mental ill health, or employers on how to address concerns around mental health in the workplace. The current economic climate and the cost of living crisis have, unsurprisingly, added to the day to day anxieties which impact employees’ wellbeing. This in turn has negatively affected employees’ resilience and their ability to tackle normal work-related pressures. Given the prevalence of anxiety, many of the issues we assist with are linked to, if not caused by anxiety, such as sub-par performance, employee absences, and poor relationships between colleagues.
It is therefore crucial for employers to understand the intersection between anxiety and their legal obligations. Anxiety is capable of amounting to a disability under the Equality Act 2010 (EA) as the EA’s definition of a disability includes both physical and “mental impairments”. Providing that the impairment has a substantial and long-term impact on an employee’s ability to carry out normal day to day activities, that employee will be disabled under the EA. The EA prevents discrimination against employees because of their disability, or something arising in consequence of it, and in certain circumstances places on an employer the duty to make reasonable adjustments to support employees. Even if an employee isn’t disabled, employers who fail to adequately support employees who are feeling anxious or distressed risk constructive unfair dismissal and even personal injury claims.
Aside from the legal obligations, employers can play a vital role in creating a supportive and healthy work environment – which will reap benefits for the organisation. An employer can help by:
- Encouraging a culture of open dialogue where employees feel comfortable discussing their mental health concerns, such as anxiety. This could include holding regular one-to-one meetings with employees to discuss their well-being, workload, and any other concerns they may have.
- Training staff to recognise the signs of poor mental health, start difficult conversations and signpost those in need to appropriate resources and support (such as counselling services and employee assist programmes). This might involve training “mental health first aiders”.
- Promoting a healthy work-life balance by respecting boundaries, encouraging employees to take regular breaks and disconnect from work during non-working hours, and to use their holiday allowance.
- Assessing and effectively managing workload pressures as an excessive workload and unrealistic deadlines can contribute to anxiety.
- Ensuring job responsibilities are clear and manageable and that appropriate work, which is within the employee’s area of expertise, is allocated.
- If not doing so already, considering flexible working options, such as remote working or flexible hours. These kinds of flexibility can enable individuals to better balance their work and personal responsibilities, reducing stress and promoting overall well-being.
- Thinking about implementing stress-reduction initiatives such as mindfulness workshops, yoga classes, or bringing in experts to talk about coping mechanisms.
A good starting point when considering how to address anxiety in the workplace is to simply open the conversation with your employees – and Mental Health Awareness Week is a good opportunity to do so.
The Mental Health Foundation has helpfully provided some tips on coping with anxiety, which can be found through its website: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/our-work/public-engagement/mental-health-awareness-week.