Conservatives propose changes to workplace mental health discrimination laws
Theresa May wants “sweeping” changes to the Equality Act to better protect people from discrimination
The Conservative Party has announced plans to better protect those with mental health conditions from discrimination in the workplace.
According to their election manifesto, released last week, the Conservatives will “transform how mental health is regarded in the workplace” by updating the 2010 Equality Act to protect against “discrimination to mental health conditions that are episodic and fluctuating”.
The act currently requires a mental health condition to be present for 12 months before an employee has legal protections.
This means that an employee experiencing depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety or another short-term or fluctuating mental health issue lacks a safeguard, should they be discriminated against due to their mental health.
The news comes as part of a broader strategy by the party to improve mental health crisis care. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Theresa May pledged “sweeping” reforms to the Equality Act and to replace the Mental Health Act with a new Mental Health Treatment Bill.
“We are going to roll out mental health support to every school in the country, ensure that mental health is taken far more seriously in the workplace, and raise standards of care with 10,000 more mental health professionals working in the NHS by 2020,” she said.
Speaking on ITV’s Peston on Sunday, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the changes to workplace discrimination laws were “about the personnel departments of companies understanding that when it comes to mental health this is not something that’s abnormal. This is something that’s very, very common and all of us in our lives have crises at different moments.”
Watch Jeremy Hunt’s interview below:
In a 2015 survey conducted by YouGov and See Me (a programme to end mental health discrimination in Scotland) 48% of Scottish workers said they would not tell their employers about mental health problems for fear of losing their job.
Calum Irving, director of See Me, said that the organisation will be monitoring the 2017 General Election for “any proposals which can improve people’s lives in this significant area”.
He continued: “With the General Election coming up we are keen to see all political parties set out plans to ensure that tackling mental health stigma and discrimination is a priority.
“Workplaces are one of the key settings where change is needed. Although employers have a legal and moral responsibility to look after the health and well-being of everyone who works for them, people worry that if they speak about how they feel, they will be discriminated against.”
Miles Briggs MSP, Scottish Conservative Spokesman on Mental Health, welcomed the government’s commitment to reform the Equality Act, saying it was part of a strategy that would “improve mental health support for people in the workplace”.
He said: “The Scottish Conservatives are committed to expanding mental health services and support across Scotland and workplace mental health must be a priority in that.”
The party last year published a policy paper on mental health that urged any business or organisation with more than 10 employees to appoint a “workplace mental health champion” as a point of contact for employees with mental health difficulties.
Briggs added that he would be asking the Scottish Government for its assessment of the Conservative manifesto proposal, and whether Holyrood has similar plans to act on the matter.
While the Equality Act is a reserved matter for Westminster, the Scottish Government has launched its own 10-year Mental Health strategy to improve access to services and support earlier intervention.
Maureen Watt, Minister for Health in the Scottish Government, said: “Our vision is of a Scotland where people can get the right help at the right time, expect recovery, and fully enjoy their rights, free from discrimination and stigma.”
Part of that strategy involves “working with employers on how they can act to protect and improve mental health, and support employees experiencing poor mental health,” Watt said, including an NHS Scotland programme offering training opportunities for employers to support workplace mental health and wellbeing, and providing £1m per year in funding for See Me.
Watt added: “Whether in schools, workplaces, communities or care facilities, we will take forward an initial 40 actions to shape change and ensure mental health has true parity of esteem with physical health.”