Please note – the views in the following feature are those of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by Safe Travels Magazine. Before travel, we recommend that you always do your own research, read travel advisories and buy appropriate travel insurance.

Christine Williamson, Director at Duty of Care International

Email: christine@dutyofcareinternational.co.uk.
Website: dutyofcareinternational.co.uk

As the lead consultant of Duty of Care International, Christine provides specialist advice and practical support to organisations on their people management and duty of care responsibilities.  We provide a range of duty of care products and services for the different duty of care topics including health and wellbeing, safeguarding, safety and security, diversity and informed consent.  We provide organisational training and expert advice and consultancy on designing and implementing organisation specific policies and procedures which incorporate best practice and ensure compliance.

Our approach is preventative and proactive and builds on our significant international humanitarian and development experience.  For details of the next duty of care webinars, see the website events page: Duty of Care International, and for more information about the products and services provided by Duty of Care International, contact Christine on christine@dutyofcareinternational.co.uk.

Christine will be speaking on the topic of mental health and duty of care at the Duty of Care Conference in May.


Mental health and being mindful of duty of care

Being practically legal

There are different definitions for duty of care depending on the jurisdiction you are working, but most agree that employers have a duty not to cause, or to fail to prevent, physical or psychological injury or harm to their employees and those whose work they have a degree of control over.

It is also important to note that in most jurisdictions, the law prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the grounds of a protected characteristic. Some mental illnesses will constitute a disability under law, where these have a substantial and long-term effect on their ability to do normal day to day activities.

This means employers cannot treat employees less favourably because of poor mental health in the workplace. There is also a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments to avoid disadvantages faced by disabled employees. This is a positive duty to take reasonable steps to remove or reduce the obstacles that the employee is facing at work because of a mental illness[1].

The facts of the matter

The World Health Organisation defines mental health as a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.

  • Each year in the UK around 40% of sick days are attributed to stress, anxiety or depression. In 2011/12 this equated to approximately 428,000 days, according to research conducted by the Health & Safety Executive, at a cost of over £26bn to UK businesses. The typical reasons for work-related stress are: work overload, too little work, lack of support, inadequate training, poor working relationships, poor working environment or personal factors[2].
  • According to the Aid Worker Security Database, in 2017 alone, 313 aid workers were victims of violence, 44% of victims were killed and 91% of victims were national staff. The numbers affected by trauma, minor injuries or a mental health impact are not recorded.
  • In 2014, the UNHCR agency conducted a wellbeing and mental health survey amongst its staff. The data showed that individuals were more at risk of mental health outcomes such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, secondary stress and alcohol misuse due to an Effort Reward Imbalance rather than those who reported experiencing traumatic situations[3].

The different facts and figures here demonstrate how difficult it is to know the true cost and time spent on mental health matters in organisations.

Prevention is the key to successful stress management and a highly informed manager could be the difference between a person addressing the stress levels they experience and coming to a solution or being off work sick due to mental illness.

The stigma attached to mental health has resulted in the majority of people not bringing to light potential health issues at the earliest sign of a problem.

Mental health is a significant part of an employer’s duty of care obligations – the unseen and often silent part.

What organisations need to do to fulfill their duties

The support that workers are receiving from their organisation for their mental health has improved over the past few years.  Most organisations know it is a duty of care and an obligation that they be equally concerned with their workers’ mental as well as their physical health.

Some organisations are providing services and support much sooner than before.  The mental health of a worker is being seen as a health risk and organisations are using preventative strategies and looking at ways to keep their workers healthy and safe.  This is good news and we are going in the right direction in some areas but I would argue we still have some way to go.

Who is responsible?

It is the responsibility of any manager to protect the health, safety and well-being of all staff within his or her team. This includes making sure they are protected from physical and mental harm.

The mental well-being of a worker encompasses issues relating to work-related stress, depression and anxiety and any pre-existing mental health issues that the manager has been made aware of.  Every individual has a responsibility to be open and honest with their manager with regards to their health and well-being when it relates to work.  When asked “Is everything ok?” and the worker responds with “yes everything is fine”, then the manager is not obligated to take action to improve the situation. It’s therefore important for managers to be approachable and provide a safe place for workers to be open and honest.

Managers must also ensure their staff feel there will be a beneficial outcome from discussing potential issues, rather than a negative impact on their working conditions as a result of highlighting a potential issue.

In situations where pressure at work has the potential to turn into work-related stress, it is vital that the manager is made aware that the workload, deadlines, or working environment is not sustainable, so that adaptions can be made to improve the situation before it has a more severe impact of the health of the employee.

The employer or manager is only responsible for what he or she is deemed to have been aware of.  For example, if an employee suffers a recognised psychiatric illness, such as clinical depression caused by stress at work with no outside factors contributing to the illness, and the manager knew about the worsening of the condition and did not act, there is the possibility of a personal injury claim.

Key points

  • Recognise mental health as an important aspect of duty of care and raise awareness within the organisation on how to stay mentally healthy and what to do when suffering or struggling with issues.
  • Prevention is the key to successful stress management
  • Provide access to mental health resources and support, including occupational health and psychological and counselling support, and encourage early adoption of the services.

Tip: quality assure your counselling service – it is a minimum duty of care requirement to provide a quality counselling service.

  • Conduct risk assessments and use mitigation measures for higher risk environments
  • Conduct resilience and stress assessments for roles working in high-risk and highly pressured environments. Be diligent with medical health checks.
  • Include psychological support as part of your contingency planning and when responding to critical incidents
  • Make psychological support part of any travel and health insurance
  • Provide and quality assure training and mentoring for managers on mental health

Tip: by helping managers to spot the early signs of mental health issues, you are enabling them to provide a supportive team environment.

  • Conduct surveys on mental health

Tip: good data provides a clearer picture of where you are now and the interventions needed to make improvements.

  • And most importantly, keep the issue of mental health on the agenda. Be a listening organisation and let this be evident in the way you govern and are accountable.

Questions for you

  • Do you know how your organisation manages workplace mental wellbeing?
  • Are you aware of any support your organisation offers to staff?
  • Would you know where to access mental wellbeing services outside your organisation?
  • Do you feel supported by your manager and colleagues?
  • Are the responsibilities and expectations of your work clearly communicated to you?
  • Is there anything else your organisation could do to improve your mental wellbeing?

Links to further reading materials/websites


[1] Mindfulemployer.net

[2] Mindfulemployer.net

[3] www.unhcr.org/protection/health/56e2dfa09/staff-well-being-mental-health-unhcr-survey-report-2016

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