Employers have a duty of care with respect to the health and safety of their staff. This includes workplace stress and anxiety.

The law also prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the grounds of a protected characteristic. One of these protected characteristics relates to disabilities.

An employee will be considered ‘disabled’ if they have “a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on their ability to do normal daily activities.”

A mental disorder such as anxiety or depression can qualify as a disability. Each case will depend on the employee and their ability to cope in their job.

Happy worker with colleague discussing anxiety management

How to manage anxiety in the workplace

When it comes to managing employee anxiety, employers should consider several factors. However, the need to ensure your workplace has an open and understanding culture is key in all cases.

Making reasonable adjustments for anxiety

If an employee has a disability, an employer may need to consider making ‘reasonable adjustments’ in the workplace, as outlined by the Equality Act (2010). This is to ensure the disabled person has the same access as a non-disabled person to everything involved with starting or maintaining employment.

Appropriate adjustments for anxiety will vary. These could include adopting a flexible approach to start/finish times, allowing use of paid or unpaid leave for medical appointments, or offering temporary part-time hours.

For a detailed discussion and explanation on making reasonable adjustments, please refer to our dedicated knowledge article on the topic.

Workplace policies, practices, and training

Regardless of whether or not an employee is afflicted by debilitating anxiety, employers need to give proper consideration to the structures and procedures in place which shape workplace expectations and culture.

Check that policy documents are up to date, and that management and staff are familiar with what to do if someone is struggling with mental health issues.

Some other aspects to consider include:

  • Carrying out a risk assessment
  • Ensuring key personnel are trained to detect signs of mental distress and how to deal with an employee who is struggling
  • Making sure employees know who they can speak to
  • Helping employees feel confident that any issues will be handled with empathy and understanding
  • Establishing procedures which make it easy for an employee to access help or advice

Employee in discussion with line manager about anxiety issues

Phased returns and working from home

With working practices showing signs of shifting permanently in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, now may be a good time for employers to reconsider how and where work happens, especially if it can benefit employees experiencing mental or emotional challenges.

If working from home full time is unrealistic, it may be possible to arrange a hybrid approach which mixes home working with time at the workplace.

Alternatively, if an employee has been off work for a period of recuperation, a phased return to work could be agreed. This could be reviewed at intervals and adapted as required.

Good communication minimises misunderstandings

Employees may be anxious about any number of issues. Understanding what these issues are requires sensitivity and clarity when discussing how best to help.

If an employee is to work from home, employers need to consider the most effective way to reassure and communicate with them. This could take the form of a regular phone call, or a video conferencing session.

Seeking additional support for anxiety

In addition to modifying working arrangements, employers should consider whether they can provide any other resources. For example, it may help to offer counselling, one-to-one support or group sessions.

Some employees may benefit from access to additional information about stress management.

It may also be useful to ensure all staff are provided with refresher training courses on mental health awareness.

Empl;oyee with anxiety issues communicating with colleagues in video call

Listen and adapt

One of the most important things an employer can do is to be mindful of the progress an employee is making with their mental health, and to adjust the approach as and when appropriate.

Always maintain regular contact with affected employees, give them the time and space to volunteer suggestions, and encourage the formation of a culture that ensures staff can approach others for help, seek open discussion when they need it, and make disclosures in confidence – without fear of judgement or prejudice.

Mental health is a serious issue which can impact on the lives and livelihoods of individuals. The responsibility on employers can be significant. If you have any concerns about your legal obligations when it comes to managing workplace anxiety, our team of experienced employment solicitors are on hand to help. Get in touch today for an initial consultation.

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Updates: For employers: Sickness issues | For employees: Sickness |

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