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Protecting Staff Mental Health During the Coronavirus Pandemic

on Monday, 19 October 2020.

The human impact of coronavirus (COVID-19) and the different ways it can affect employees’ lives is coming more sharply into focus as the second wave is upon us and stricter local restrictions are imposed.

What Are Your Legal Responsibilities?

The duty to safeguard employees' mental health can be found both in common law and in legislation. As employers, higher education institutions are under a basic common law duty to take reasonable care for the safety of their employees. This duty is reflected in the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, which contains a general obligation to ensure, so far as reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all staff. The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 also require employers to carry out risk assessments to identify, assess and control workplace risks.

In addition, the Equality Act 2010 contains specific protection against discrimination for individuals who are considered disabled in law. Individuals suffering from mental health issues will be considered disabled if they are suffering from a physical or mental impairment with a long-term, substantial adverse effect on their ability to carry out their normal day-to-day activities. When an employee is considered disabled in law due to a mental health condition and is at a substantial disadvantage compared to other staff, their employer will be under a duty to make reasonable adjustments to help that individual remain in, or return to, work.

In preparation for the new academic year, HEIs have carried out their coronavirus risk assessments and consulted with staff and trade unions in order to formulate bespoke action plans. Risk assessments and action plans should be kept under regular review and where individual circumstances impacting on an employee's physical or mental health are identified, it is sensible to also carry out an individual risk assessment which may help identify appropriate adjustments.

Maintaining an Open and Supportive Environment

The academic year is now underway but the pandemic is far from over. Staff may understandably be feeling anxious about their personal position. Individual experiences and worries during the pandemic are likely to vary greatly from person to person, and a major challenge for HEIs is to maintain an open and supportive working environment where staff are encouraged to share concerns and experiences.

It is important to make staff aware of any pastoral support that may be available to them, such as a telephone counselling line, so that best use can be made of these. Many HEIs also have specific wellbeing policies, setting out all available support as well as other means by which the HEI supports staff mental health.

Sadly, some staff may suffer bereavement, or experience a close family member becoming severely ill during the pandemic. If your HEI has a compassionate leave policy this should also be brought to staff attention, alongside any other bereavement support you can offer.

ACAS has issued a guide to coronavirus and mental health at work which suggests it might also be appropriate to arrange mental health training for managers and staff and to appoint mental health 'champions' staff can talk to.

Practical Steps to Support Staff Mental Health

There are a number of practical steps that can be taken by HEIs to support staff mental health, including:

  • encouraging communication within an open environment and keeping in touch with all staff effectively, including those who are working remotely
  • ensuring all necessary risk assessments are complete and kept under regular review
  • ensuring managers have up-to-date training on supporting staff mental health, including on how to identify and escalate a possible mental health issue in a member of their team
  • publicising what mental health support is available and how this can be accessed, including following the ACAS guidance on mental health and coronavirus and updating staff on action taken as a result
  • considering whether to appoint mental health champions to support and assist staff who are struggling
  • reviewing relevant policies and procedures (including any wellbeing policy, sickness absence policy and/or compassionate leave policy), ensuring these are in line with current law and best practice and that all staff are aware of them
  • keeping contemporaneous records of individual conversations where relevant and seeking expert medical advice where a mental health issue is confirmed or suspected
  • considering reasonable adjustments where appropriate, taking medical advice on these and maintaining open dialogue with any member of staff who is suffering with a mental health issue
  • supporting an affected staff member's return to work after a period of absence, for example by accommodating a phased return to work and/or agreed adjustments

As the pandemic continues, much remains unknown about what the coming months may hold for HEIs across the country. Remaining alert to mental health concerns and how these can be managed will help you protect your HEI's position as much as possible in these uncertain times.

Coronavirus HE blogs

For further information on employment and HR issues for HEIs please contact Jane Byford in our Higher Education team on 07909 656764, or complete the form below.

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