Expert Update | Legal: Mental health support

Expert Update | Legal: Mental health support

Catrin Rees is a senior associate in the Construction team at law firm Collyer Bristow. She can be reached by email

Mental health remains a major issue in construction industry, says Catrin Rees and David Malamatenios from Collyer Bristow.

The construction sector continues to struggle to manage and improve the mental well-being of staff and contractors, leaving themselves open to legal challenges, delay and cost. Employers and schemes that do not take steps to better protect and provide for the mental well-being of staff and contractors may also find that they struggle to recruit the staff they need.

The law is straightforward, and the courts are increasingly sympathetic to staff struggling with mental ill-health.

It’s legally given that employers and contractors have responsibilities under health and safety law and many of these duties are preventative. An employer will have breached their duty of care by failing to do everything that was reasonable in the circumstances to keep the employee safe from harm. When that risk is from stress and depression, employers should actively consider creative attempts to encourage relaxation at work and not rely solely on telephone hotlines for stressed workers.

A recent survey by recruiters Morson Group found that over half of workers with a mental health condition did not inform their employer because they feared their reaction and the repercussions. Employers who dismiss or treat staff less favourable once mental ill-health issues have been raised is automatically considered unfair and will be breaking the law, leave themselves open to claims through the employment tribunals.

But it is clear that the industry needs to do more than just meet its legal responsibilities. There are ethical and moral responsibilities too.

Variety of causes
The causes of mental ill-health in the sector are varied, but some very clear pointers can be seen. Stress and the anxiety caused by long hours, loneliness and isolation, the struggle of being many hundreds of miles away from family and loved ones, and relationship breakdowns are all clearly identified.

And it is not a problem limited to the very large schemes and employers. Small employers may argue that they do not have the time or financial resource to explore and undertake such programmes, but that will cut little favour with the courts when assessing whether there was a duty to take reasonable care of employees’ health and welfare in the first place.
Support and advice
A response appropriate to the size of the scheme and workforce needs to be considered. There are many charities, such Mates in Mind, Lighthouse and other organisations that companies within the industry can turn to for support and advice.

In addition there is a wealth of resource such as targeted coaching and even mediation coaches specialising in the construction sector, who aim to address mental health issues before they arise and, in particular, provide workers with tools to manage effectively the stress which is often an integral part of the job.

The sector is taking steps to address mental ill-health, but there is clearly much more that needs to be done.

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