The duty to care: Employers’ mental health obligations

Image of a man with his head in his hands

Work-related stress and mental health problems often go together, and the symptoms can be very similar.

Work-related stress can aggravate an existing mental health problem, making it more difficult to control. If work-related stress reaches a point where it has triggered an existing mental health problem, it becomes hard to separate one from the other.

Under health and safety at work legislation, employers have a duty of care to their staff. This duty of care encompasses having staff take a stress and mental health risk assessment and then acting on it. This means they should take all steps which are reasonably possible to ensure their health, safety, and wellbeing. Legally, employers must abide by the relevant health and safety and employment law, as well as their common law duty of care.

Mental health and business’ legal responsibility

It doesn’t matter whether work is causing the health issue or aggravating it, employers have a legal responsibility to help their employees. 

Some employees might have a pre-existing physical or mental health condition when recruited. Others may develop one during the course of their work that is caused by non work-related factors.

Their employers may have further legal requirements to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act. 

Employers must address mental health and wellness as they would other health and safety matters. With a widespread acknowledgement of the cost of mental health issues to employers, individuals, and the health service, there’s diminishing tolerance and protection for employers who choose to do nothing.

Are mental health first aiders enough?

While mental health first aid (MHFA) can bring many benefits to the workplace, employee wellbeing may still be at risk if MHFA programmes are not implemented properly.

Poorly understood and badly-delivered MHFA programmes in the workplace can even result in decreased employee wellbeing.

Despite the low cost and low time investment of many mental health first aid training programmes, occupational health professionals spend years training to support someone and learning how to handle and respond to the confidential, distressing and sensitive information they are presented with by their patients. It could be damaging for both the mental health of the person experiencing the issues as well as the first aider themselves to expect a two-day training course to equip them with all the skills they need to deal with people experiencing a crisis.

While mental health first aid can be an important part of a package of measures designed to support the mental health and wellbeing of staff, employers should be wary of assuming that this will fully satisfy their duty of care. 

VinciWorks’ award-nominated mental health training

Screenshot of "offering emotional support" section of the mental health course
Mental Health: Wellbeing at Work includes guidance on how to help colleagues who may be suffering from stress or anxiety

VinciWorks’ new mental health course, Mental Health: Wellbeing at Work, is designed to give users an understanding of some of the causes of stress at work, what can happen when it’s not dealt with and how employees and employers can help reduce unnecessary stress and improve wellbeing at work. This interactive e-learning training arms staff and managers with the tools they need to spot warning signs and improve wellbeing across the whole organisation. The course has been nominated for the TimeOut mental health award in the Best use of Technology category.