Employers are legally obliged to provide reasonable adjustments for employees with a disability that meets legal criteria, including medium to long-term mental health conditions. Many of the people who call GMLC for advice are pursuing cases against former or current employers for forms of disability discrimination. GMLC interviewed Rhian* about her experiences of working in temporary contracts, with an accompanying article on mental health and job insecurity by Campaign Volunteer Lead Anna-Maria Mancheva.
Work occupies a significant amount of many people’s time, provides a source of income, and connects us with others. However, a lack of control over working hours, worries about bills, and a lack of security can negatively affect the mental well-being of employees. Work can cause or aggravate pre-existing mental health conditions. Prolonged work-related stress leads to mental and physical harm, including anxiety and depression.
Employers have a legal obligation to put measures in place to reduce the risks of poor mental health for employees. According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ report ‘Mental Health and Work’, some employers show sympathy for their employees with mental health issues, but many employees are refused training, promotions or transfers. Many people hide their mental health problems from their colleagues. Employees who reveal their poor health to hostile employers may also face discrimination. Among employers, one-third are sceptical of sick notes mentioning mental health problems, and employees returning from sick leave often face investigations, demotions or stricter supervision. Among those affected by “serious” mental illness, one study discussed by the report found 6.3% with serious mental illnesses have been laid off or told to resign. The perception of how their employer will view their absence makes mentally ill workers hesitant to take sick leave. As a result, they may remain at work and become more ill.
Financial hardship is affecting people in various economic sectors due to workplace instability. Job insecurity can be detrimental to employees’ mental health. This is especially true when employees are forced to work for low wages or on a temporary basis. Chronic job insecurity reinforces a negative self-reinforcing cycle that can influence people’s personality in the long-term: a study by RMIT University in Australia found that long-term job insecurity negatively affects a person’s tendency to reliably achieve goals, get along with others, and cope with stress. Stress at work can lead people to ignore leisure activities that could assist in reducing insecurity in their lives and careers.
In 2019/20, the HSE’s annual report showed that there were approximately 828,000 workers affected by depression, anxiety, or stress at work. This represents 2,440 per 100,000 workers and results in an estimated 17.9 million working days of absence. Stress, depression, and anxiety caused 51% of all work-related ill health and 55% of all days of absence due to work-related illness in 2019/20. Research from the ONS has linked job insecurity to suicide, with young adults in low-paying jobs being at the greatest risk. In 2020, BITC and Bupa UK surveyed 3,614 UK employees – 41% of them reported mental health symptoms caused or worsened by work.
Mental health is still stigmatized and misunderstood in society and at work. Raising awareness about it can help break the silence and make work more open and inclusive, but raising awareness alone is not enough. A strong foundation of rights and protections for employees is also needed to ensure everyone is in the best position to look after themselves and their health.
We spoke to Rhian*, a temporary agency worker who recently called GMLC for advice. Rhian was working in an office in the private sector when she found herself under immense pressure to meet targets, which exacerbated her anxiety and depression.
Do you think work has become more insecure these days? If so, how does this affect your mental health?
I think work is far more insecure nowadays. There are far too many agencies that employ temporary staff for other employers, rather than direct recruitment through a company. I have been approached by so many agencies and have worked for several. The approach to temporary staff is so blasé. I don’t think salaries have gone up with the rate of inflation either. I was on £18,000 in 2006, and the majority of work I see online 15 years later is at the same starting salary.
Working in an insecure environment and never knowing if you are going to get a tap on your shoulder to say “you’re dismissed” does affect your mental health, inside and outside of work.
At work you are monitored constantly: how long you’ve been on the toilet, whether you are hitting targets, and if not, why you aren’t hitting those targets. There is pressure not to be ill. You’re disposable, as there are plenty more candidates out there.
With no security, you’re constantly worrying about losing your job, how you will pay your bills if you lose your job, whether you will be entitled to any benefits, and if so, when they might get paid. This has a knock-on effect at home as you come home exhausted and irritable.
How did working for an agency change your experience of both work and resolving problems at work?
When I was a permanent worker in the private sector, I had private health insurance, quarterly bonuses, access to discounts online etc. I also was paid full sick pay for 6 months. My employer even offered to pay for counselling.
When I was working through the agency for the same employer, they did nothing for me, and nor did the agency. They blocked a request to raise a grievance and then gave me a phone number to ring a helpline for depression – that was it. There was little to no access to any reasonable adjustments.
When I tried to resolve problems at work and asked for reasonable adjustments, they said no, gave an excuse, and then sent me an email to tell me my contract had ended and that they hoped I could find something more “suitable to your needs”.
Do you think there is enough support and protection for workers with mental health difficulties at work?
There is most certainly not enough support and protection for mental health difficulties at work [for agency workers]. There is little awareness of mental health, and it’s something that is not openly talked about. When I told my manager I had an appointment with my counsellor, I was treated as if it is something to be ashamed about. There was help for dyslexia and such, with one-to-one training offered, but no help for anxiety or depression.
If not, what would you like to see change?
I would like to see open discussions around mental health and for it to be something that is not seen as a weakness or not recognised at all. I would like to see help, such as extra training/mentoring, less demanding behaviours and group chats.
Have you found that you were able to access the legal help and advice you needed easily, or were there barriers? If there were barriers, what were they?
Other than talking with the Greater Manchester Law Centre (GMLC) and ACAS, I have had no help [in putting together a claim]. I have rung solicitors about legal aid, but [because I didn’t pass the means test] I could get no help. I would equate the experience of trying to navigate the legal minefield to drowning and bobbing up now and again to breathe some air. I didn’t even know how to put together the documentation. I had to fumble my way around the internet looking for clues and never getting answers.
Do you have any feedback about how GMLC did?
I can’t fault GMLC, they helped me as much as they possibly could, and the help was so appreciated and needed.
Do you have any other reflections on how the law should protect workers against mistreatment? If you could bring in some legal rights, what would they be?
I don’t feel that agencies should be allowed to behave the way they do: so many times our wages were late, holiday pay and taxes pay messed up, etc. Unpaid wages have a huge impact on workers. I have seen people break down crying as they are living hand-to-mouth, and if their wage isn’t paid, they have no idea how they are going to get through until the next payday. If this is unlawful, how come employers who do it are not prosecuted and heavily fined?
I think “reasonable adjustments” should be for all, not just permanent staff. Temporary staff have disabilities, but those disabilities are rarely recognised.
Wages are insufficient to live a decent life in today’s society, the house prices are sky rocketing and so are rents, but wages don’t reflect the cost of inflation, not even close.
Working from home should be a choice not a luxury. Having to commute with all the dangers of the world such as Covid is a frightening experience. Not only is it unsafe, but with public transport, it is expensive too.
As for taking cases to tribunal, I feel that there should be free legal aid access for all. How fair is it that I have to take two huge companies to court, when they have access to millions of pounds and barristers and I just have myself? How is that fair? In that situation, how can there ever be justice?
If you think you have been discriminated against on the basis of a mental health problem, you can speak to your trade union for guidance on what you can do about it. If you don’t have a trade union and you live in Greater Manchester, you can contact GMLC for legal advice.
*Rhian’s name has been changed to preserve her anonymity.