Mental v. Physical Health

According to a recent CIPD absence management survey, the most common causes of short-term absence are minor illness which includes colds, flu, stomach upsets, headaches and migraines. Longer-term absence is usually caused by stress and acute medical conditions, followed by mental ill health, musculoskeletal injuries and back pain. This is costing employers on average £1,035 per employee each year. This is significant and while we want to help you manage it, we also want to mitigate any chance of a claim under the Equality Act.

Equality Act 2010

If the employee’s medical condition amounts to a disability, they will have the protection of the Equality Act 2010. This protects the employee from any less favourable treatment because of something arising in consequence of their disability. There is also a duty to make reasonable adjustments to work provisions, criteria or practices in respect of disabled employees. There is not a general list of conditions that would be classed as a disability because each case needs to be judged on its own merit. Sometimes, what seems like a physical illness like an upset tummy or leg trouble may in fact add up to a disability in the eyes of a tribunal.

In order to qualify for protection, an employee must be able to demonstrate to a tribunal that they have a physical or mental impairment which has a “substantial and long-term effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”. When you actually fully consider this definition, it is possible that many of your employees fit into this category.

Guidance for Managers when managing absence:

  • If you say you’re going to carry out return to work interviews, then do so.
  • If you’re made aware that an employee is suffering with physical or mental health problems, treat it seriously, i.e. as you would any other ill-health condition even if you don’t consider them to be ‘that ill’.
  • Never ignore it as this could store up trouble for the future.
  • Where their GP has suggested workplace adjustments, e.g. a reduction in working hours, workload or targets, always see if these can be implemented or investigate alternatives.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for specialist medical advice if you need it.
  • Prevention is the best way to limit your liability, so these initial points are really important
  • Communicate clearly and encourage your staff to do the same, and genuinely consider your employees’ circumstances.
  • Don’t make any comparisons or jokes. Instead, ask the employee how they are feeling right now and what you can do to help them. If they haven’t seen a GP and you’re worried, urge them to seek medical advice. If a condition is, or may be, long term, also consider whether reasonable adjustments are needed.

In summary, there is such a crossover between mental and physical health and one may be contributing to the other. It is not always safe to assume that there is no risk when looking at an employee with plenty of minor illnesses. Each case should be judged on its own merits and no matter how minor the illness or absence may seem, it is always a good practice to sit down with your employees and see if there is anything else going on. Although managers may not think they have time, the investment you put in now may give you an insight if you think a situation could brew later on and be much more costly.

Physical and mental health are equally important!

Next Steps

If you have any concerns over your employee’s absence levels, a really good place to start is to collate the information you have. Often it is best to review their absences by looking at the reasons, dates, duration of absence and any return to works you have. Once you have that information, one of our HR Consultants would be happy to assist you in determining how best to manage a physical or mental ill health absence situation.