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World Mental Health Day - Could a four-day working week help reduce stress in the workplace?

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The World Health Organisation recognises World Mental Health Day every year on the 10th October. This day is designed to raise awareness of mental health conditions and how it can affect people’s lives. A recent survey conducted by charity, Mind has indicated that 48% of employees have suffered from a mental health problem at work[1]. A further study also reported that only 1 in 4 workers will tell their employer that they are experiencing mental health issues, with 75% suffering in silence.

It is common for people to be stressed and anxious at work, often due to poor relations with colleagues, increasing time pressures or being treated unfairly because of a mental health condition. Every employer has a duty of care to safeguard the health and safety of their employees whilst at work. Mental health is included within this duty, however, it is often overlooked or unreported. It is not just employers that must be mindful - employees also have an important part to play. An employer can be held vicariously liable for any act of discrimination carried out by an employee in the course of employment, unless the employer took all reasonable steps to prevent it. By raising mental health awareness, people can better understand how they may be able to help safeguard the health of the people they work with.    

Call for a four-day working week

At the Trade Union Congress (an organisation which supports trade unions and fights for equality, fairness and justice) in early September, a call was made for the working week to be reduced to four days, instead of five. With new technology and methods of communication, workers lives could be improved by reducing time spent in the office. It has been reported that over 1.4 million people work 7 days a week and 3.3 million work more than an average of 48 hours per week[2]. This is contrary to the Working Time Directive that gives employees the right not to work more than 48 hours per week and have at least 1 day off per week (covered over a two-week period). Being overworked can result in psychological damage or it can aggravate pre-existing conditions. It is important that employers provide a safe working environment and, where an employee is disabled, make reasonable adjustments to alleviate any substantial disadvantage caused by a disability. Failure to do so can result in disability discrimination or another claim. The four-day working week could be one way of providing necessary relief to those struggling with mental health conditions.

The four-day working week has recently been trialled in a New Zealand firm, Perpetual Guardian, who help manage customers’ Wills and estates. The trial involved the businesses’ 16 offices working four days a week throughout March and April, whilst getting paid for five. Perpetual Guardian has reported that the scheme was an “unmitigated success” and are working towards making the change permanent[3]. The reason the scheme worked so well is because employees were involved in its implementation and designed how the four-day week would be managed to ensure productivity was not negatively impacted. By giving employees more time to spend on family commitments, work productivity increased during office hours and stress levels decreased by 7%. Although more research will need to be undertaken, it appears that less time spent at work could help those suffering from mental health conditions. Perhaps one day, the four-day working week will become a reality in the UK? We will have to wait and see.

Practical considerations for employers

Mental health charity, Mind and the CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) have published mental health guidance for employers to support mental health at work. The guidance will touch upon the following:

  • Being able to spot the warning signs of a mental health condition developing.
  • Being able to offer support early on when the employee needs help the most.
  • Improving employee disclosure and ending the current culture of silence in relation to mental health conditions.
  • Providing training to managers and encouraging them to play an active role in dealing with any situation that arises.
  • Dispelling the current stigma associated with mental health conditions and making managers and employees feel comfortable to openly talk about them.

The key message is that mental health issues are here to stay and unless businesses take positive steps to support employees, we are unlikely to see any difference in the growing statistics.

If you or someone you know is experiencing issues in the workplace, or you would like to discuss this article in more detail, please do not hesitate to contact a member of the Employment team.

This article is not a definitive statement of the law. It is designed as a free update on the law at the time of publishing. It is not a substitute for legal advice on specific facts and circumstances. BakerLaw LLP and/or the writer accepts no liability or responsibility for reliance on this article and recommends that you seek independent legal advice on your specific circumstances prior to taking any steps.