How to meet your mental health obligations at work

An illustration of a head, illustrating mental health obligations

World Mental Health Day will highlight a global issue on 10 October, but the time to address it is now – especially as it costs UK firms up to £100bn each year. The IoD’s Information and Advisory Service outlines the key mental health obligations for employers

When it comes to expressing the human and commercial impact of mental ill-health, the statistics speak for themselves. A quarter of the population will suffer a mental illness at some point in their lives, while about 18 per cent of working-age adults are experiencing anxiety, depression or a stress-related problem at any given time, states Mental Health First Aid England (MHFA) in its 2016 Line Managers’ Resource. The UK’s chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, has estimated that about 70 million working days are lost every year as a result of mental ill-health, costing the nation between £70bn and £100bn. The cost of “presenteeism” – where people come to work unwell and are unproductive as a result – could be higher still. And, even though it affects so many of us, mental illness remains a taboo subject. According to a poll of workers by mental health charity Mind, of the 20 per cent of respondents who’d taken sick leave in the preceding year owing to stress, only one in 10 had told their employer the true reason for their absence.

The legal considerations

The sheer scale of the problem underlines how important it is for firms to know their responsibilities in respect of their workers’ mental health. There are numerous regulatory aspects that employers need to understand.

UK legislation treats mental health in the same way as it does physical health. Under the Employment Rights Act 1996, employers must inform employees of their sickness rights. Unless indicated otherwise on an individual’s contract of employment, there is no entitlement to full pay on sickness absence, but he or she may be eligible to receive statutory sick pay. If an issue relating to mental health is raised at work, the employer should consider all the possible legal implications. These include whether the employee’s incapacity for work has been caused by factors such as stress, bullying or an accident in the workplace, and whether their absence is related to a disability. The Equality Act 2010, which protects disabled people from unfair treatment, extends to individuals with a mental illness. If disability is a factor, “reasonable adjustments” to the workplace must be made to ensure that the person concerned will not be seriously disadvantaged in their job.

Holistic treatment

A number of expert bodies recommend taking a rounded approach to mental health at work. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, for instance, suggests that it should be considered as part of an overall wellbeing strategy instead of a standalone topic. Mental health, it argues, should be integral to an employer’s health and safety obligations, rather than part of a “nice to have” policy. Mind proposes a three-step approach: promote wellbeing for staff, tackle the causes of work-related mental health problems and support those experiencing mental ill-health. And the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health suggests to employers in its 2015 wellbeing handbook, Working Well, that “targeting morale is particularly important, as high morale helps to counter the effects of stress”.

What should members do next?

Employers should ensure that they know all their legal obligations concerning workers’ mental health and also operate a wellbeing policy that covers the topic. As part of the latter, you may wish to provide training (eg, MHFA courses), raise awareness of mental wellbeing at work and support anyone whose health is affected. The IoD has just published a factsheet offering guidance on how to form a such a policy. Members should log into (see panel, below) to access this new and exclusive resource.

Interested in finding out more?

The IoD is committed to raising awareness of mental health issues in the workplace, with a particular focus on opening up the conversation for small-and medium-sized businesses. We have created a hub packed full of helpful advice, best practice and useful resources, as well as shared experiences from business leaders.

Visit our mental health in the workplace hub here and get involved in the conversation on Twitter #IoDMH

How the IAS could help you

The expert teams of the IoD’s Information and Advisory Service (IAS) provide members with free guidance designed to help them run their firms more effectively:

The Business Information Service can investigate questions on behalf of members and supply them with valuable statistics, such as salary data and market forecasts. It can also provide factsheets and template documents, including staff handbooks (covering sickness policy, for example) and health and safety policies. or by email

Book an appointment with the Directors’ Advisory Service for confidential, independent advice from specialists on issues ranging from fundraising to dealing with disputes between shareholders and boards.  020 7451 3100

The IAS helplines offer prompt and confidential tax and legal advice on both personal and commercial issues.  01455 639110

(quote both your membership number and reference number 33337)  0870 241 3478
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Become a member of the IoD

The IoD has a range of memberships for directors, founders and co-founders, providing all the resources and facilities needed to enhance your business. To find out more about membership offerings and to join today, visit

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