By Sybille Steiner and Jo Moseley in Irwin Mitchell’s Employment Team
The impact of Coronavirus on the UK is unprecedented. The care sector has been particularly hard hit; huge numbers of residents have died from the disease, and when adjusted for age and sex, social care workers have twice the rate of death due to Covid-19 compared to the general population. It’s no wonder so many care workers are feeling the strain and report a worsening in their mental health.
The UK has seen a dramatic increase in the number of confirmed cases and, it looks like it’s going to be a tough winter. This article looks at the steps employers should take to protect their staff and help them to stay as resilient as possible through the dark and gloomy days ahead.
Health and safety
Employers have a statutory duty to protect the health and safety of their workforce. This includes assessing the risk of stress related ill health arising from their work and taking measures to control that risk. The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 specify how you must comply with your general duties under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. In essence, you have to carry out a ‘suitable and sufficient’ risk assessment to decide what health and safety measures you need to take.
The Health and Safety Executive has identified six key areas of work design (which are known as the ‘Management Standards’) that, if not properly managed can lead to work related stress. These are:
1. Demands – workload; work patterns and the work environment
2. Control – how much say a person has in the way they do their work.
3. Support - the organisation, line management and colleagues
4. Role – whether people understand their role within the organisation and the extent to which it ensures they don’t have conflicting roles
5. Change – how organisational change (large or small) is managed and communicated in the organisation
6. Relationships – promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour
All employers should consider each of these factors and develop a plan to help to manage workplace stress. A step by step workbook to help is available here.
You also have a common law duty to protect the mental health of your staff and, if you breach this, you may be liable if they develop a psychiatric injury. However, you are entitled to assume your staff can withstand the normal pressures of the job unless you know they already have poor mental health. Generally, you actually have to know (or should reasonably have known) that someone isn’t coping before you are put ‘on notice’ that the employee needs help. Once you know there’s a problem you should consider (in discussion with the employee) what changes you need to make to help them. You may also need professional help from a mental health specialist or occupational health advisor.
Many care workers work extremely long hours which makes them more vulnerable to poor mental ill health.
Anyone with a disability is protected under the Equality Act 2010 against discrimination in employment. Someone will be regarded to be disabled if their condition has a long-term effect on their ability to undertake normal day to day activities (for example, sleeping, interacting with people, or following instructions). Long term is anything that lasts 12 months (or is expected to last that long). The condition doesn’t have to be caused by work and many workers who suffer from anxiety and depression (and many other mental health conditions) will therefore be protected under the Equality Act 2010.
Employers must make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to help anyone with a disability remain in work. In the context of mental health, this might include reducing their working hours or getting extra support from other staff. Acas has a guide to supporting mental health in the workplace which provides some useful tips.
Destigmatise mental health
Despite some high-profile campaigns designed to reduce the stigma around mental health, many people don't want to admit that they are struggling. It is therefore important for employers to take active steps to help staff by being aware of the 'warning signs' and, supporting staff through difficulties.
What are the warning signs?
Everyone is different. A good starting point is to consider whether the employee's behaviour is out of character. For example, is the employee having difficulty making decisions? Have they become disorganised, started making mistakes or appear to be particularly tired? Some people may become irritable or overreact to criticism, appear to be more sensitive or become tearful during ordinary conversations. They may become pessimistic and sceptical and lose trust in people, act aggressively or blame others for their own mistakes. The HSE has guidance on the signs of stress available here.
If an employee is demonstrating all or any of these behaviours it doesn't necessarily mean the employee does have a mental health problem and there may, of course, be other reasons for the behaviour. Either way, it can form the start of a conversation and open dialogue.
If you are worried about a member of staff, speak to them about your concerns. The meeting should be held somewhere private where they will not be disturbed or overheard. Try and approach the meeting with an open mind and don't make assumptions about the employee or the reasons why they are distressed or worried. You need to listen to what the employee is telling you, consider what you can do to help (particularly if it is work related) and meet regularly to make sure that any adjustments you make are helping. If they are not, are there any other steps you can take?
Train your managers
Speaking to someone about their mental health is not easy and your staff are likely to feel uncomfortable about having these sorts of conversations unless they know what to expect and how to deal with distressed members of staff. Good training will help them develop the skills they need and improve their confidence.
This article appeared in Care Markets