Would you know what the signs are?
Jack is a production line worker. The company has done well but has just undergone a period of organisational change. Jack's had a lot of time off work recently. Even when at work, Jack seems de-motivated and his performance is a cause for concern. He was signed off work four weeks ago for stress and anxiety and is due back this week. His line manager Sarah carries out a return to work interview, planning to have an informal word about performance. At the meeting, Jack tells Sarah he’s had a lot on his mind as his wife was recently diagnosed with early onset dementia.
What can the company do to help Jack?
Assessing the workplace
As mentioned in our last article, managers are key to spotting the signs, and if Sarah had picked up on Jack's time off, demotivation and dip in performance, she could have proactively supported Jack early on.
Whether the cause of stress outside work is sickness, divorce, bereavement or some other trauma, the first step is to make sure the workplace is not also a source of stress. Whilst Jack's wife's condition is apparently the reason, the recent organisational change is likely to have been another source of stress. Organisational change and how it is managed and communicated is identified as one of six main risk factors set out in the Health and Safety Executive's Management Standards for work-related stress.
Sarah should check whether this or any of the other HSE risk factors have affected Jack, and try to reduce the risk of any work-related stress adding to Jack's anxieties. Action now could reduce absence, and in the long term protect the company against a claim for personal injury caused by workplace stress.
Apart from work factors, Sarah should discuss how the company can support Jack. One consideration is flexible working. All employees with 26 weeks' continuous employment now have the right to request flexible working.
A change would relate to hours or times worked, or place of work, and is permanent unless something else is agreed. Employers are obliged to consider statutory requests in a “reasonable manner” (following the ACAS Code of Practice) and can only reject a request for one of eight business reasons.
If Jack makes a statutory request which is granted, it would be sensible to include a review period. If Jack does not have sufficient service, the company could still consider a flexible working request outside the statutory scheme.
At this stage, however, a permanent change might not be ideal. Jack may prefer more flexibility in working hours, the chance for some unpaid or compassionate leave, or to work from home occasionally.
Perhaps at this stage his wife’s symptoms have relatively little impact and Jack needs emotional support. He could be referred to employee assistance helplines or for counselling.
It sounds like Jack is returning to work, but if he hasn't returned after 4 weeks, the company could consider referring Jack to the new Fit for Work service, with his consent. The service is designed to give free, early intervention in sickness absence. Despite some concerns about it (employee consent is required at each stage; the assessment is done by telephone – potentially without reference to medical records or the employer), it could provide suggestions on how to help Jack get back to work.
Throughout the process, sensitive, open communication will be key.
Sarah also needs to remember Jack's legal rights. Firstly, Jack has a statutory right to take a reasonable amount of unpaid time off to deal with emergencies and make necessary longer term arrangements for his wife. A 'reasonable' amount of time off will rarely be more than 1-2 days, but failure to allow time off or penalising Jack for it could result in an Employment Tribunal claim.
Secondly, Jack's stress and anxiety may eventually satisfy the definition of 'disability' under the Equality Act 2010 if it lasts or is likely to last 12 months or more, and has a substantial adverse effect on Jack's ability to carry out day-to-day activities. This would mean making reasonable adjustments.
Finally, even if Jack's own mental health improves, allowances may need to be made for absence if his wife's dementia satisfies the definition of disability, because Jack would be protected from discrimination by association with his wife’s disability.
In the recent Employment Tribunal case of Truman v Bibi Distribution Ltd, a father with previously good performance and appraisals was dismissed after saying that he might need more time off to care for his daughter who had cystic fibrosis. The ET found that his employer had not been able to give a satisfactory explanation for his dismissal unrelated to caring for his disabled daughter, and he had been subjected to associative disability discrimination.
Our next article will look at managing mental ill-health absences, including disabilities and reasonable adjustments.