If an employee hobbles to work on crutches, employers often seem far more able to deal with the situation than if an employee tells them they are depressed. ACAS (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) has issued guidance on dealing with mental health in the workplace to try and assist employers in dealing with the management of mental health conditions. 

From an employment law perspective, employers should remember that mental health issues at work may not just result in increased sickness absences but it could, depending on the severity, be classified as a disability. If this is the case, the employer may have additional obligations upon them. 

When is it a disability? 

A disability for the purposes of employment law is where a person has a physical or mental impairment and that impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. 

To break it down, there are 4 questions an employer should ask: 

  • Does the employee have a physical or mental impairment?
  • Does that impairment have an adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities?
  • Is that effect substantial (i.e. more than trivial)?
  • Is that effect long-term (i.e. likely to last at least 12 months)?

If yes to all, they are treated as disabled for the purposes of employment law. 

What obligations does an employer have towards a disabled employee? 

Firstly, the employer needs to take care not to discriminate against that individual, for example by not promoting them because of their disability. 

Secondly, the employer needs to consider what (if any) adjustments to their work and the workplace may be reasonable to make in the circumstances. This could include, for example, allowing time off for them to attend counselling sessions or granting them part-time working arrangements to reduce work pressure. Factors which will be used to consider whether an adjustment is reasonable or not will include: 

  • whether the adjustment will eradicate the disabled employee's disadvantage;
  • the cost of the adjustment and the employer's resources; and 
  • the disruption that the adjustment would have on the employer's business.