Managing mental health and equality and diversity targets


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Having a healthy and diverse workforce should be every employer's aim. Not only is it important for employers to show that they follow good employment practices and look after their employees, but it is also worth considering the reputational and financial costs of failing to do so.

Workplace discrimination, harassment and stress claims can result in lower commitment from staff and increased absenteeism. In addition there's the issue of management time and legal costs to consider.

Mental illness is a significant problem faced by the construction industry caused, in part, by the constant pressure to meet deadlines and budgets and having to take responsibility for the health and safety of colleagues. Mental health problems are not always picked up and it's essential that they are dealt with effectively to prevent recurrence.

What is stress?

Stress is defined by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) as "the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them" at work. It is a reaction, and will not normally amount to an illness in itself, however it may result in or be a trigger for other illnesses.

The effects of stress are shown in physical and mental conditions, such as anxiety and depression, and physical health problems such as heart disease.

How to manage it?

If an employer does not manage stress in the workplace then it will not be getting the best out of its employees and will potentially run the risk of stress-related claims. Measures that employers can put in place include the implementation of a stress at work policy and the provision of training to managers to enable them to recognise situations that are likely to cause stress. Additional support can be provided via an employee assistance programme or an occupational health service. Independent confidential counselling can also be provided.

Another way of identifying stress is via return-to-work interviews to see if there is any underlying stress-related reason for the employee's absence. performance management procedures can also be used to identify stress-related reasons for any performance issues.

Comply with your health and safety obligations

Employers have a common law duty to take reasonable care for the safety of their employees. They have to see that reasonable care is taken to provide them with a safe place of work, safe tools and equipment. The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 imposes a general statutory duty on employers to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of all their employees.

The HSE has put together Management Standards to encourage employers to comply with their legal obligations and to measure their performance in managing work-related stress. They are intended to help employers demonstrate good practice through a step-by-step risk assessment for work-related stress.

Potential claims

Putting measures in place to avoid employees developing stress and to help support those suffering from it, is a way of avoiding potential claims.

  • Personal injury – employers are under a common law duty to take reasonable care for the health and safety of employees in the workplace. In order to bring a personal injury claim an employee will have to show that their employer has breached the duty of care, that it has caused the employee injury, and that an injury of that type was reasonably foreseeable as a result of the breach.

  • Breach of contract – it is an implied term of every employment contract that the employer will take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of its employees at work. This includes a duty to take reasonable care not to cause psychiatric harm to an employee due to their working environment or the volume of work placed on them.

  • Unfair dismissal – employees have the right not to be unfairly dismissed. It's possible that an employee who has been off work with stress will be managed under the absence management procedure and dismissed. If the procedure is not followed properly and no efforts are made to accommodate the employee back in the workplace then it is possible that they will have an unfair dismissal claim.
  • Disability discrimination – it is possible that the stress the employee is suffering from will amount to a disability. If this is the case they may be able to bring a disability discrimination claim.

  • Harassment claim – it may be possible for an employee suffering from work-related stress to bring a claim under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. This prohibits anyone from pursuing a "course of conduct which amounts to harassment" and which that person knows or ought to know amounts to harassment.

Equality and diversity

The Equality Act 2010 protects employees and workers against discrimination. The characteristics protected under the Act are age; disability; gender reassignment; marriage and civil partnership; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion or belief; sex and sexual orientation.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission 'Equality Act 2010 Statutory Code of Practice: Employment Statutory Code of Practice' (the Employment Code) provides employers with a useful guide to ways of ensuring that they comply with the provisions of the Act, from issues surrounding recruitment to managing the working relationship, including how to motivate staff via proper appraisals, training and development.

The Code recommends that, as a matter of good practice, employers draw up an equality policy which is backed by a clear programme of action for implementation and continual review.

UK National Equality Standard

The National Equality Standard (NES) was developed by business for business and sets out clear equality, diversity and inclusion criteria against which companies are independently assessed. Currently only two construction companies have been awarded the NES for their approach to diversity and inclusion so clearly the industry still has some way to go!

Conclusion

The incorporation of equality and diversity into workplace practices is important. When it comes to tendering processes it is helpful to be able to show that your organisation takes equality and diversity seriously. The downsides of a failure to promote non-discriminatory policies and deal with mental health issues include low employee morale as well as potentially hefty legal costs from unwanted claims.

This article is taken from Building Interest - Summer 2017.

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