Employers, not staff, should pull themselves together when it comes to stress in the workplace

‘Pull yourself together’. It’s a favourite statement to people with depression and anxiety issues, from people who don’t understand depression and anxiety issues – particularly managers. But it’s the managers who should pull themselves together and deal with it sensitively, says Tayside solicitors and estate agents Miller Hendry.

The facts surrounding mental health in the workplace speak for themselves: one in four people in the UK will have a mental health problem at some point in their life; stress accounts for 35% of all work-related ill health problems; mental health problems cost UK employers £30 billion a year in lost production and absence.

And yet the way managers deal with the issue not only leave a lot to be desired, it can be discriminatory, says Miller Hendry.

A recent employment tribunal decision concerning Visionplus, now doing business as Specsavers Opticians, in Colchester, concerned a director who made “dismissive” comments about an employee’s medical condition. The ruling found that the director’s comments trivialised the depression of the employee, an optical assistant. The worker had received formal and informal warnings for failing to comply with the employer’s notification procedure, lateness and a dispensing error.

The director went on to say that “everyone gets depressed sometimes, you just have to pull yourself together.” He also told the employee, who said she was struggling with depression, that he had no time for “this kind of thing”.

The employee resigned after it was suggested she might be dismissed. She then brought successful claims for disability discrimination. In the employment tribunal, the director was found to have discriminated based on disability under the Equality Act 2010.

The Wickers v Colchester Visionplus Ltd t/a Specsavers Opticians case throws up not only the dangers of dealing with mental health in the workplace, but being aware of disabilities among employees, says Alan Matthew, employment specialist with Miller Hendry. He said:

“Incidents of stress-related illness at work have been steadily climbing in recent years. And with one in four in the UK facing mental health problems at some point in their lifetime, it’s time for managers to treat the issue sensitively and respectfully.

“The Specsavers case threw up the issue of how much knowledge managers have of employees’ wellbeing and disabilities due to depression. Our advice to managers would be that they should make sincere enquiries about an employee’s health, get medical evidence as soon as they can, and show sensitivity and respect when dealing with mental health issues.

“Phrases such as ‘Pull yourself together’ and ‘Sort yourself out’ should never be used. Saying things like ‘I’m concerned, can we talk about this?’ and ‘How can we improve things?’ are much more appropriate. In other words, it’s not the employees who should ‘pull themselves together’ but the managers.”

For further advice or information on employment law or other legal issues, visit www.millerhendry.co.uk