Mind Matters

13 February 2009 Rob McCreath

The chances of a person experiencing some form of mental health issue throughout their lifetime are relatively high, which will have an affect on the workplace. As Archon Solicitors’ Rob McCreath writes, companies have to respond responsibly and with sensitivity to ensuring the well being of the individual and the organisation.

The workplace is for robust, healthy people, yes? Ill people, especially people suffering with a mental health issue, should be cared for elsewhere, somewhere out of sight. They should certainly not be recruited and if they slip through the nets set up by HR, or if they become ill during employment, they should be discreetly managed out. Many would say, in a tough world, this makes good business sense.

Yet consider this, according to the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health’s 2007 policy paper Mental Health at Work, on average, employers should expect to find that nearly one in six of their workforce will be affected by a mental health condition at any one time, such as depression or anxiety. The proportion rises to over one in five if alcohol and drug dependence are also included."

With such proportions, some of the people affected by mental health conidtions will be in charge and may be the most talented and productive employees in an organisation. Therefore, employers who view this as a problem are surely deluding themselves.

"My observations as an employment lawyer suggest that many high-status jobs attract, and even demand, people who are on or over the verge of mental illness."

Undoubtedly there are legal risks for employers arising from mental illness in the workplace. Personal injury claims arising where stressful working conditions cause psychiatric injury routinely yield compensation payments in six figures or more. Many jobs, particularly those carrying high pay and/or status, are inherently stressful. Employers who seek to reduce their personal injury risks by removing vulnerable people from those jobs could face disability discrimination legislation, under which compensation payments can reach similar levels. It’s a classic bind.

Employers who merely seek to deal with mental health issues as and when they reach crisis point in individual cases risk far more than just legal claims. The greatest mental health costs to employers estimated by the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health are not from compensation or even absenteeism (although the latter is estimated at £8.4bn per annum), it is reduced productivity from those present at work, at £15.1bn.

My observations as an employment lawyer suggest that many high-status jobs attract, and even demand, people who are on or over the verge of mental illness. In an article for the Times Higher Education Supplement, Simon Blackburn, professor of philosophy at Cambridge University, advises (admittedly with some mild exaggeration for effect) that "stark staring lunacy, really superlative absence of marbles" is one of the keys to success in academia.

One of the problems that universities face as a result is in managing conflict between highly productive, intelligent and articulate individuals who would be regarded as 'different' in a 'normal' working environment. One case that I dealt with involved death threats between academic colleagues. Another led to the legal costs for one individual academic running close to £1m.

Checks and balances

People working in high-stress environments such as the professional services, medical and creative sectors face similar problems. In law firms, the most talented and productive partners are very often those who are, behind the façade, most vulnerable to mental illness. Their relationships with colleagues and their management of junior staff are often poor. They thrive on the kicks of client satisfaction, fee generation, publicity and power, all of which fuel an insatiable ego. They are tolerated until they go too far and are axed, often with devastating consequences for the individual and sometimes the firm.

Work that is satisfying is widely regarded as being good, and perhaps necessary, for mental health. My suggestion to employers is that if their organisation is to thrive they should avoid deluding themselves that their staff are free from mental illness, or that those who are will stay that way.

A confidential counselling service is not enough. Employers should actively consider where the particular pressure points are for individuals in their organisations, such as intensity and variety of work, peer pressure, team dynamics, involvement in decision-making and competing pressures from home. Management structures, training and guidance should take such issues into account. Checks should be put in place to rein in superstars in danger of believing their own PR (even at the cost of reduced income in the short term) and to nurture the self-esteem of those at the other end of the spectrum. But at the same time, individuality and talent should not be stifled. It’s a tough act.