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Your rights: Disclosing a mental health condition

Mental Health
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Rebecca Kincade on February 19, 2014 - 6:45 am in In Depth

Admitting that you have a pre-diagnosed mental health condition on an application form or in your workplace can be extremely daunting. In this article, the first in a three part series focusing on equality in business, Rebecca Kincade explores the rights that people struggling with these illnesses have at the point of entry into a new role and what is being done to increase the levels of support for employees already working in organisations. 

According to a report by the Shaw Trust, 70% of employers estimated that fewer than 5% of their employees would have mental ill-health in their entire working life. The reality is five times that figure, with one in four people affected by depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions at some point.

MindWise support those at risk of, and affected by, severe mental illness, while also campaigning to reduce the stigma surrounding these issues. Julie Hill, director of workforce development, says that employers must work to create a culture where concerns about mental health can be talked about: “We would recommend that if someone is struggling in work that they talk to their line manager or HR department. Unfortunately if the culture isn’t supportive, it can be a very difficult process. Employers need to train their managers to cope with these issues. The facts and figures are there to show that when people are able to talk, they are less likely to end up in crisis or taking long periods of time out of work. Once an issue is disclosed, employers have a legal duty to consider reasonable adjustments if the individual meets the definition under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) in order to support ongoing work.”

Reduce the cost

The Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health found that mental ill-health is the second highest cause of employee time off in the UK. 3 million working days are lost to Northern Ireland industry each year due to mental illness, equating to a cost of £125 million a year for the overall economy. Good management of mental health at work, including prevention and early identification, can bring this cost down by as much as 30%.

Ms Hill knows that it tends to be larger employers that will put resources into building a healthy workplace environment: “Managers need to be given the confidence and tools to deal with these situations. Often they are concerned that they will say something wrong. As with supporting anybody facing a crisis, good management and good leadership are vital. We would encourage regular staff reviews, open and transparent processes and a structure that promotes a work/life balance. ”

In a survey carried out by the Social Exclusion Unit fewer than 4 in 10 employers said that they would recruit someone with mental health problems. Ms Hill would like to see organisations remove the request to disclose this information at the application form stage: “Even if an interviewer doesn’t perhaps mean to discriminate, once they have this knowledge it is likely that they could do it subconsciously. We would recommend that employers have a separate form that is only viewed once an offer of employment has been made, or alternatively only if issues crop up that require adjustments or support for the interview itself.”

Discrimination Act

The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) offers protection for individuals who meet the definition of disability under the DDA - a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

Lisa Taggart, senior legal officer, Equality Commission, told me how the law is set out to support people with mental health illnesses: “The DDA offers protection to job applicants, current employees and past employees. It makes it unlawful for an employer or prospective employer to treat them less favourably compared to non-disabled employees in similar circumstances; or to treat them less favourably for a reason which relates to their disability; or to subject them to harassment. It also makes it unlawful for an employer to fail to make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees.”

The Commission receives about 3,000 complaints of discrimination every year, and around 36% of those are complaints of disability discrimination. Ms Taggart said: “The 2011 census identified that, of those individuals with a mental health condition, only 29% were economically active. Our most recent Equality Awareness Survey 2011 revealed negative attitudes towards people experiencing mental ill health and these have increased since our last survey. There is no absolute obligation to declare a disability to an employer or prospective employer. A key factor will be the extent to which the disability is adversely affecting the employee’s ability to do the job. If the job is unaffected and the employee has no particular need for adjustments, disclosure may not be required.”

Negative to positive

Prospective employees may be asked about disability on an application form. This should be designed in a positive way, to provide the applicant with an opportunity to inform the employer concerning any reasonable adjustments required for the interview. If an employer does not know that an employee has a mental health condition, the employer’s reasonable adjustment duty will not be activated.

In being open with their employer, an employee may be protected from unnecessary criticism or even disciplinary action, which might otherwise be taken because the barriers to performance posed by their disability have not been identified.

Ms Taggart continued: “The DDA does not prevent employers from asking employees for information about their health or disability. Crucially, an employer must not use this information in a discriminatory way or for discriminatory purposes. For appropriate adjustments to be put in place, individuals need to be clear in their own minds about what disadvantages they face in doing their job. In some cases adjustments may not alleviate the difficulties faced by the individual. Or the adjustment required may be unreasonable, for example, due to cost/resources and size of the organization.”

Support that is local

I wanted to find out about the policies some local companies have in place to support their employees. IKEA Belfast’s Human Resources Manager Bob Van-Geldere explained: “Co-workers suffering from stress can access support through various channels including our Health & Wellbeing Weeks which help to support healthy living and dealing with difficult life situations.”

He continued: “If co-workers are struggling with non-work related stress or mental health problems, we offer a short-term, professional and confidential counselling service to help address and overcome issues, available 24 hours a day no matter where in the UK and Ireland you are based. IKEA also has Trust Line, a number that co-workers can call to express any concern, and can be completely anonymous if they would prefer. If co-workers are off on extended sick leave due to a mental illness or stress, IKEA will refer them to an Occupational Health Advisor who will support their rehab back into their working life.”

Firstsource Solutions is one of Northern Ireland’s largest private sector employers with contact centres in Belfast and Derry/Londonderry. Grainne O’Kane DGM, HR Firstsource, says: “Mental health awareness is an extremely important issue for Firstsource as our people are the most important asset to our business. We have a number of wellbeing initiatives in place to ensure that we are in tune with our employees’ general health. Wellbeing weeks run quarterly and cover a number of services including, relaxation techniques, suicide awareness, alcohol abuse, healthy eating and exercise.”

“Employees who need support are encouraged to communicate 24/7 through our Employee Assist line, which is confidential and many of our managers are also all trained in mental health awareness so they can look out for the triggers that affect people. Firstsource works with PIPS, Northern Ireland’s suicide prevention charity, to initiate programmes for its staff around awareness of the signs of depression and the need for help with self-harm prevention.”

Health and wellbeing

M&S also have a Health and Wellbeing programme. An Employee Assistance programme ‘Live Well Work Well’ provides 24/7 confidential support to all employees via telephone, face-to-face counselling support and via a line manager referral process. At the employee Wellbeing Website, employees can access a wealth of information on managing specific mental health conditions. Line managers can access specific policies and support information work place. Specialist consultation support is available to all line managers with specific cases to ensure that the best possible support and adjustments can be made for those living and working with mental health conditions.

The Equality Commission is currently working with the Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health as part of the ‘Change your Mind’ campaign to reduce stigma and discrimination for people who experience mental ill-health. Discrimination advice officers may be contacted on or emailed at  . They can provide information and discuss available options for redress. All advice is free and confidential.


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