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Working from home: wellbeing and mental health of employees

2nd December 2020 by Robin Watson

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While some people are enjoying working from home, this is not the case for everyone and the negative impacts over several months are taking a toll on some employees.

‘Employers are unsure of their responsibilities for mental health and how to deal with performance issues, when the boundary between home and work has become blurred,’ says Robin Watson, head of the employment team with Laceys. ‘They want to know how best to support their employees’ wellbeing while keeping the business on track in difficult times. This includes knowing what questions you can ask, how to address mental health issues, and how to be fair in disciplinary, grievance or performance management or capability procedures.’

Potential problems arising from homeworking

Homeworking brings a different set of pressures to those in the workplace; a lack of boundaries between home and work, and difficulties in switching off. It can put a strain on relationships, particularly for those without a separate room to work in, or who are having to cope with caring responsibilities, education, or special needs.

For some employees, the buzz of the workplace and the structure of the working day in the office may provide a relief from loneliness, addiction, old trauma, or an underlying mental health problem. For others, concerns around the pandemic or job security may have caused anxiety or depression.

Employer responsibilities for employees’ mental health

Employers need to do what is ‘reasonably practicable’ to ensure their employees’ health and safety. This includes mental health as well as physical health, which means a responsibility exists if your employees are in the workplace, on site or working from home.

Look out for potential disabilities

You need to be alert to the possibility that an employee’s mental health condition could be a disability, which means the employee is protected under the Equality Act 2010. Even if the employee is not aware that they could have a disability, you would be expected to pick up on signs and respond appropriately.

A mental health condition, such as anxiety or depression, can be a disability if it has a substantial adverse impact on the employee’s ability to carry out day-to-day activities and that impact has lasted, or is likely to last, for 12 months.

This is not an easy task to assess and specialist legal guidance and advice should be obtained. Usually, expert medical opinion is required too.

If the employee has an alcohol or other addiction, this is not regarded as a disability under the Equality Act 2010 alone. However, it can be hard to disentangle addiction from other mental health problems that may pre-date or be caused by the addiction. We can advise you on dealing with this sensitive situation.

You also need to be considering whether the employee has any caring responsibilities, such as for children or anyone who is disabled. This can also impact on the way that you address any concerns in the employment relationship.

How to approach an employee

If you suspect that an employee may be struggling, you may be concerned about employee privacy or saying the wrong thing. Using open questions such as ‘how are you finding working from home?’ can help get the ball rolling. Using a video call will help ensure that you do not miss essential non-verbal signs. Providing these conversations are handled sensitively, it is appropriate to broach the subject.

If the employee appears to be having problems, then it may be advisable to involve an occupational health specialist to assess the employee. This can be done remotely.

Supporting employees’ wellbeing

If it is found that the employee has a disability, you may need to make reasonable adjustments for them. For instance, it may be appropriate to increase supervision, or adjust the employee’s workload or working hours.

There is a range of ways in which managers can support staff wellbeing at home, such as regular, scheduled individual catch ups; encouraging employees to take regular breaks; regular team socials by video call; and encouraging employees to switch off at the end of the day.

Performance management and disciplinary matters

As part of any fair process in dealing with poor performance or an accusation of misconduct, the employee should have the opportunity to put their side of the story and offer any mitigation.

If the effects of homeworking during the pandemic, or the particular pressures of the pandemic, have been a factor then this needs to be taken into account in the employer’s response. You may need to be more lenient, particularly if the employee had a good record until the first lockdown.

A disciplinary meeting can sometimes be the first time that an employee mentions a mental health problem. If so, you may need to pause the process to find out if the employee has a disability, the effects of which might be relevant. Missing clues at this stage could risk a claim for disability discrimination later.

Data protection and health information

Remember that information about an employee’s health is sensitive personal data, and so needs to be handled in accordance with privacy regulations.

How we can help

Good communication and proactive management are key to supporting employee wellbeing, but this is a sensitive area and you should seek support from an employment lawyer to reduce the risk of a grievance or employment tribunal claim.

We can advise you at all stages, including on whether an employee is likely to have a disability, what additional support may be required, and on your obligations under data protection law in relation to health information. If you would like further advice please contact Robin Watson in confidence on 01202 755204 or email r.watson@laceyssolicitors.co.uk

 

Robin Watson

Partner — Employment and Immigration

Direct dial: 01202 755202

Email

“Cocowai is a wholesale and online retail cashmere company. We recently contacted Robin Watson at Laceys Solicitors to help and advise us with producing an employment contract, and subsequently for advice on other employment issues. Robin has been extremely helpful and efficient throughout the whole - from our initial meeting, through to further telephone conversations and subsequent emails. I have been impressed by Robin's consideration of our "type" and "size" of company, whilst advising on what kind of contract we needed for our business. ”

Frances Macaulay, COCOWAI

Robin studied law at the University of Southampton before achieving Distinction in a postgraduate law diploma at Bournemouth University in 2011 and being awarded the Dorset Magistrates’ Association Excellence in Advocacy Award.

Robin qualified as a solicitor with Laceys in 2011, and is now one of Laceys partners, specialising in employment law advising employers, HR Directors and managers on all aspects of complex employment law and day-to-day HR issues.

In addition, Robin completed a demanding course and examination process and qualified as a Solicitor-Advocate early on in his career. This entitles Robin to appear in all civil courts and enhances the service he can provide to clients.

Robin is able to bring his previous experience in management outside of the law and also, understands the real demands and issues involved in HR. Robin takes responsibility for the HR of Laceys which includes circa. 100 employees and so has experienced what it is really like to deal with frontline HR issues and his clients genuinely benefit from that. It enables Robin to give practical and clear advice based on real experience, as well as utilising his legal knowledge and experience.

Robin has advised and represented a national hotel and restaurant group concerning multiple redundancies and general ongoing employment law/HR support and also recently advised and represented a financial services organisation in a High Court contractual dispute.

Robin has previously advised a local charity regarding potential pay claims and represented a senior charity executive.

As part of his service Robin likes to provide training to his clients and their HR teams.

Away from work Robin enjoys cycling, cooking and eating. Lately, Robin has (again) started sketching and is trying to convince himself that he has a talent!

To find out more about Robin becoming Partner and why he chose to specialise in Employment law click here;

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