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Workplace mental health discrimination: What to know

Why do I need to know about workplace mental health discrimination?

The answer to this question probably depends on whether you think 41% is a large amount. 

Because that’s how many employees reported experiencing mental health symptoms caused or made worse by work in the last year in a survey done by Business in the Community. In the same report, 79% of working people reported having a ‘stress related absence in the last year’.

That’s a lot of people feeling unhappy about their work, and it may well be because they feel discriminated against in their workplace because of a mental health issue. 

Just imagine if that many people had suffered physical damage from doing their job. 

But since 2010, the Equality Act has made discriminating against an employee suffering from mental ill health an offence under the law.

So, whether you’re an employee or an employer, this is definitely something you need to know about.

What does the law say?

Briefly, the law states that all employees are equal, and it protects everyone in the workplace against discrimination, harassment and victimisation. So nobody should be treated differently at work because of a ‘protected characteristic’ such as sex, age, race or disability. And you might be surprised that a mental health problem is also regarded as a disability if:

  • it has a ‘substantial adverse effect’ on an employee, such as having difficulty focusing on a task or needing more time to complete it;
  • the period of mental ill health is at least 12 months; and 
  • the employee can’t do their normal daily activities, such as following instructions or keeping to company working hours. 

So anyone who discriminates against someone at work is responsible for their actions under this law. And that applies to employers as well. 

You can read more about mental health disability rights on our blog here.

What is workplace mental health discrimination? 

This type of discrimination is when someone is put at a disadvantage or treated less favourably than other employees. Their working life is, therefore, made more difficult because of a disability.

It can be direct or indirect. Both types are, of course, wrong, but indirect discrimination can be more subtle and harder to identify.  However, the effects can be just as devastating to the disabled person.

Indirect discrimination is when general workplace practices, policies or rules are used without considering the particular problems they might create for disabled employees. You can read more about types of discrimination on our blog here

Another form of workplace discrimination is harassing a disabled employee by bullying or insulting them and making them feel degraded or afraid. 

And if a disabled person is labelled a troublemaker or left out of things because they make a complaint about workplace discrimination, that is victimisation, which is also a breach of the Equality Act.

For someone who isn’t disabled, experiencing some of these behaviours would be upsetting and may even create a mental health issue; but for someone who already suffers from a mental health disability, the consequences could be severe. 

What does workplace mental health discrimination look like?

None of us wants to think we would consciously mistreat a disabled person, do we? And that’s the problem – we might not be aware that we are doing it because it’s not our intention to discriminate or cause offence.

And someone struggling with their mental health might be especially sensitive to a joke or a prank that others might ‘laugh off’. 

It might not even happen in the workplace because many people are still working remotely, so an email or a phone conversation could be the source of the discrimination. 

And it doesn’t just happen between peers; people in positions of authority need to be especially careful not to discriminate against someone with a mental health disability. 

Discrimination or harassment could also come from a customer or a client, and it is still the employer’s responsibility to protect their employees from this.

Workplace culture in itself can also create the conditions for mental health discrimination to take place. For example, if there’s a climate in the workplace where unconscious bias or stereotyping about mental health issues are unchallenged or questioned, discrimination can be the result. 

This is often seen in micro-aggressions. For example, helping a disabled person who hasn’t asked for help or challenging someone’s use of an accessible toilet because they don’t look disabled.  In another situation, a colleague might express surprise when they hear of their disabled co-worker having a ‘normal’ hobby or family life. 

But could workplace mental health discrimination affect my company’s bottom line?

Definitely. The Centre for Mental Health estimated that mental health difficulties in the workplace have enormous consequences for the business health of companies:

  • £10.6 billion for absenteeism
  • £21.2 billion for lost productivity from presenteeism
  • £3.1 billion for staff turnover

Remember that 41% from the start of this post? Well, 51% of those employees said that their problems were caused by pressure at work. 

The Office for National Statistics found that last year, Britons took 137 million sick days. Of these, 15.8 million were for mental health related issues. 

If those figures don’t convince you, try this.

In a survey by Deloitte, Millennials (those born in the 1980s and 1990s) prioritised a healthy work-life balance and a positive workplace. And they are more likely to leave their job if these working conditions are not present. 

Research by MIND also shows that FTSE 100 companies that prioritise employee engagement and wellbeing outperform the rest of the FTSE 100 by an average of 10%. Good mental health underpins this. By fostering a mentally healthy workplace culture and putting in place the proper support, businesses small and large find that they can achieve peak performance.

So, managers need to support staff to manage the increasing blurring between work and life. This starts with making sure your workplace is free of all forms of disability discrimination – particularly mental health discrimination.

How can I make sure that there is no mental health discrimination in my workplace?

A good place to start is to have a look at our blog here. You’ll find a wealth of helpful articles for both employers and employees. 

And here are a few more suggestions about preventing workplace mental health discrimination:

  • Make your workplace a place where mental health can be talked about freely.  People who understand the issues and recognise that anyone can be affected by mental ill health are less likely to discriminate against others. 
  • Culture change has to come from the top. Therefore, wherever possible, leaders should also talk about their experience of mental health difficulties. 
  • This will help eliminate the stigma around mental ill health that connects it with ideas of weakness and shame.  
  • Focus on what all disabled members of your workforce can do, rather than what they can’t do.

And remember – it’s not just about being ill. It’s also about understanding what good mental health looks like and creating workplace environments and cultures that genuinely foster this. 

And if that sounds a bit daunting, we can help you with this.

How can SupportRoom help my company?

Here, at SupportRoom, we offer employee therapy for small to medium businesses. Our platform allows employees to receive therapy on-demand from a  dedicated, qualified therapist.

Our SME Employee Support platform is designed to give insightful data that allows your employees to track their progress and monitor their own mental and physical health.

Book a free demo here.