The legal cost behind employee mental health during a pandemic

Posted on July 23, 2020
Written by Caroline Dutot

If you’re an employer, you have a duty of care to your employees. Whilst this covers things like providing a safe working environment, it’s not just about creating a physically safe place to work. Employers also have to consider how to make sure their working environments protect employee mental health too.  

Lots of employers have had to exercise an increased duty of care during coronavirus by, for example, adapting to physically distanced workspaces, updating cleaning protocols and imposing business travel restrictions. But what focus have you been putting on your employees’ mental health? Virtual pub quizzes, ice-cream deliveries and virtual team building exercises are all measures we’ve seen happening across social media in recent months.  But have you had the, sometimes difficult, conversations about employee mental health? 

Some employees have had significant stressors on their mental health recent months. Juggling work with their caring commitments and extended periods of isolation has understandably had an impact on individual mental health and overall team morale and performance.

If you are an employer, then you have a duty of care towards the psychological wellbeing of your employees. Legally an employer has to have acted in a reasonable and prudent way, taking positive steps to have regard for the safety and well-being of its employees in the light of what it knew or should have known. 

During coronavirus, many employers have been carefully monitoring their employees’ mental health to make sure that they feel well-supported, especially when working from home. And although many have done this from a place of leadership and care, if you haven’t focussed on employee mental health, there is a legal duty of care that must be met.

Any employer who turns a blind eye to an employee struggling with anxiety, depression, stress or any other mental health challenge, may find themselves facing claims of breach of contract, personal injury, negligence, constructive dismissal or even disability discrimination. It can be disruptive for everyone involved if an employee needs to take sick leave and, unless their eventual return to work is well managed, can result in a breakdown in the employment relationship altogether.

Employers need to encourage employees to talk about any challenges they may be facing and be proactive in starting conversations about mental health. Whether this is by having one-to-ones, group sessions where employees share their experiences or directing employees to outside services such as the listening lounge. If you have a HR team who have been taking the strain of employee engagement in recent months, remember to check in on how they are too. It’s important to remember that everyone has experienced the pandemic in different ways, the impact on one person is not the same for another. Take time to understand the individual circumstances of your team members and ask them what they need.

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