Mental health crisis and employers

In theory, at least, health should never be considered a matter of discipline. The fundamental principle behind discipline is that it should address behaviours that are within an employee’s power to change. Issues of reliability, following of procedures, in-work behaviour (rather than personality) are matters that most HR professionals would regard as matters of discipline. Health, including long term ill-health, is regarded as capability and employers need to follow a different, more empathetic, procedure.

Mental ill health therefore poses a challenge for employers, namely the question of whether the reliability, diligence or behaviour is within the employee’s power to change.

May’s intention for employers to consider mental ill-health in disciplinary matters will put pressure on employers. When it comes to matters such as lack of commitment, for example, they will need to consider whether such issues really are a disciplinary matter. Employers may need, instead, to address more training, well being and perhaps involvement of occupational health services.

We have seen, or been involved in, several occupational health interventions and those have been largely successful. Employees have been “saved” from dismissal and are now making fair and reasonable contributions to their employers.

Thus such interventions can add profit to the business, but not always. There remains a risk that substantial attention to these matters in an individual case may divert an employer from the main purpose of their business. Experience in the HR profession suggests that treatment that is too sympathetic does not pay off. There is therefore a balance to be struck.

Otherwise, we are left with the question of whether employers should be obliged to sacrifice profit and productivity for the greater good of society. There is a strong argument that it is only profit and productivity that creates the economic strength for Theresa May to tackle issues of mental ill health in the first place. Looking to employers to take responsibility for resolving the crisis is an attempt to regulate their activities.

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