Mental health | Worker spends nearly one year off sick with stress - HR could've stepped in sooner

Worker spends nearly one year off sick with stress - HR could've stepped in sooner

The sacking of a worker who spent nearly a year off sick, due to stress and mental health, has put the issue of workplace wellbeing support firmly in the spotlight.

Reported by Wales Online, prison worker Mark Edwards was dismissed from his admin post at HMP Cardiff after he spent 330 days on sick leave, after several grievances against managers were not investigated. Edwards has now won £135,000 in compensation after an employment tribunal judge ruled that his sacking amounted to unfair dismissal.

Edward’s primary complaint was that one manager, Brian Ward, told him he could not use his mother's cancer diagnosis as an excuse for being late to work on an occasion in 2016.

Edwards submitted claims to an employment tribunal, and soon thereafter was signed off sick. An occupational health report found that the workplace grievances were the main factor behind his stress and ill health, the tribunal was told.

During his months off, the prison’s governor Danny Khan attempted to get Edwards to return due to the prison being understaffed, but he refused to come back until the matters had been resolved. Khan subsequently sacked him.

The hearing was told that by the time Edwards appealed this decision, the Secretary State for Justice knew he was classified as disabled due to his poor mental health, but his appeal was still dismissed.

Employment Judge Sian Davies has now ruled in favour of Edward’s claims for discrimination and unfair dismissal.

Judge Davies said: "This medical opinion appears not to have affected their decision-making, which is puzzling in circumstances where the medical view had changed. Whilst a doctor’s opinion on disability is not definitive it carries weight as an expert opinion, otherwise there seems little point asking the question when seeking [occupational health] advice."

HR’s role in supporting mental wellbeing

Edwards was evidently a very poorly man at the time of his dismissal – nobody would spend so much time off sick if not. It’s unclear how much his superiors could have done to support him with his mental wellbeing, but what is clear is that they could, and should, have done more. Doing so might have helped Edwards spent a significantly smaller amount of time off ill.

As such, as there clear takeaways from this situation that HR can use to improve their own company’s approach to mental health and stress.

The pandemic has had a hugely detrimental effect on the nation’s mental health and sense of community. Disrupted social lives, the cancellation of large gatherings, travel restrictions and working from home kept us in one place for long periods of time.

Bethan Dacey, Mental Health First Aider at MetLife, previously told HR Grapevine: “Against a backdrop of increasing uncertainty, it is little wonder so many of us are prioritising our mental wellbeing. Everyone deals with worry, anxiety and stress differently, so it’s important that, across workplaces, employers are creating environments that enable open dialogue. And, importantly, each of us should feel empowered to find those methods that work best for us and that aid our overall wellbeing.

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“The hybrid workplace presents both a challenge and an opportunity. Businesses and managers across the UK are working hard to adapt and remind employees of the services available to help them adjust within their employee benefits. For employers, it is worth being mindful of the impact of remote working on employees and the associated challenges of spotting those who are struggling.

“Taking steps as a business to support a healthy and happy workforce in a hybrid setting, can help to boost morale, increase productivity, and ultimately champion workplace wellbeing. And Stress Awareness Month provides employers with the perfect opportunity to establish a conversation and understand how best they can help their teams if they are struggling.”

Below, Bethan shares tips for employers on how to help their employees with stress in the workplace:

Encourage communication

The pandemic has had a major impact on most people. Whether that’s health related, the passing of a loved one, struggling with working from home, caring for a loved one, home schooling or just living through an unprecedented time of the unknown – the list is endless. While some employees will be open about the struggles they are facing, some may feel hesitant. Encouraging open lines of communication and a parental stance, employers can go a long way in building long term trust with staff as they realise their employer is there for them in the tough times as well as the good. Talking can also reduce the burden significantly and therefore expedite an individual’s recovery.

Watch out for employee burnout

Elongated periods of stress can lead to burnout. Being aware of changes to an employee’s productivity is vital, managers need to be vigilant when monitoring how individuals interact or show signs of disengagement. People can hide behind a computer and be unseen very easily. The typical ‘calling in sick’ stats may reduce, but the reality can be very different. MetLife’s recent research found that two in five (44%) admit to calling in sick due to feeling exhausted, stressed, depressed, overwhelmed, and unmotivated. Similarly, presenteeism can prove challenging as staff feel unable to take annual leave as it simply increases their workload on their return. You may notice some employees cannot switch off from sending emails and working long hours, even when they are on holiday. Helping employees to plan their annual leave throughout the year can be a small step with a huge benefit. You may also want to consider encouraging a digital detox and mindfulness techniques to encourage better sleep.

Support their overall wellbeing

Traditional benefits – such as retirement, medical, and dental insurance – provide a safety net for employees. But as the world changes and new ways of working accelerate, this is altering what employees want from their employers. MetLife’s Re:Me research shows that 71% of employees feel that companies have a social responsibility to their working, including an increased role in their welfare, wellbeing, and overall happiness. The flexibility of hybrid working enables employees to achieve a better work/life balance as they are able to unwind more easily from the comforts of their home and devote more time to activities outside of work rather than commuting. Employers who support employees in and out of the workplace can help ensure both will thrive today and, in the years, to come.

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Comments (1)

  • Maria
    Tue, 2 Aug 2022 8:25am BST
    My employer also ignored my OH report & a letter from my GP re work related stress & anxiety, I am now taking them to employment tribunal for disability discrimination, victimisation & harassment etc, my partner was also diagnosed with cancer which they failed to take into consideration too

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