From redundancy to recovery: workplace mental health

United Kingdom

During Mental Health Awareness Week, 13 – 19 May 2024, employers are encouraged to reflect on best practices for supporting their employees' mental health. This is particularly relevant for employers who have recently been through or who are engaged in redundancy processes. Evidence shows that investing in the mental health of employees is crucial. Not only does it contribute to a more positive work environment and employee well-being, but it also enhances productivity, morale, and retention rates.

In this Law-Now, we explore the mental health challenges of the retained employee population after a redundancy process, address the legal considerations surrounding the management of employees' mental health needs and offer practical strategies for employers who wish to foster a supportive environment post redundancy.

Understanding survivor syndrome

Commonly referred to as "survivor syndrome," staff who keep their jobs after a round of redundancies can experience greater pressure owing to changed work patterns, worry over job security and increased workload. Some employees react by taking on more work as they feel unable to say no due to concerns for their future. Employees involved in managing the redundancy process may also experience feelings of burn out.

The consequences of this can include lower morale, higher rates of sickness absence and increased stress levels among the remaining employees. Even in circumstances where a redundancy process is handled sensitively, retained employees may grapple with emotions such as guilt, anger, and uncertainty about their future.

Motivation may dip as employees struggle to move on from a period of change or they may feel less inclined to push themselves into work if they have lost trust in their peers and the organisation. A study by IRS Employment Review found that 53% of staff had suffered reduced motivation following a redundancy process, emphasising that the negative impact on the remaining workforce cannot be overlooked and that everyone reacts differently to change. 

Associated legal risks: disability discrimination

Managers are often well versed in complying with disability related issues during the redundancy selection process, but they can overlook the fact that disability issues can continue to arise in the aftermath.

As the recent tribunal case of Phillips v Aneurin Bevan University Local Health Board highlighted, stress at work can amount to a disability, provided the usual disability tests under the Equality Act are met i.e. the condition must have a substantial, long term adverse effect on the employee’s ability to carry out day to day activities. In a redundancy situation, if the restructure and changes in job role result in a prolonged period of stress, for example, an employee may argue that stress at work reached the legal threshold to amount to a disability.

Consequently, managers should be live to their duty to make reasonable adjustments. Examples of adjustments that might be relevant in the circumstances include phasing into a new role or applying some leniency in terms of performance expectations as employees bed in.

Managers should be aware that organisational change may disturb the status quo of how someone manages their condition, prompting changes to existing adjustments or for some people, the need to put in place adjustments for the first time.

Not all disabilities are visible and not every person with a disability wants to disclose it to their employer. Employers should steer away from criticising employees who choose not to disclose their disability at an early stage. In one recent tribunal case involving a neurodiverse employee who was dismissed for misconduct, the employer accused the employee of withholding their autism through “masking”. This comment amounted to harassment.

Associated legal risks: personal injury

More widely, employers have a legal duty to take reasonable care for employees’ health and safety in the workplace. This includes assessing the risks of stress related ill-health arising from work and taking measures to control any risks identified. This can become pertinent in the aftermath of a redundancy program.

In the most extreme situations, employees may seek to pursue a stress-related personal injury claim against their employer. To do so the employee must prove that their employer breached its duty of care, leading to personal injury, that was a foreseeable outcome of the employer’s conduct. This means it is important for managers to stay alert to signs that an employee is not coping. The importance of proactivity was emphasised in a Court of Appeal case which held that referring the employee to the employer's counselling services, as the employee’s manager had done, was insufficient to avoid liability for personal injury. Even in circumstances where employees are signed off sick by a GP, in many cases management intervention should continue, and managers should consider whether it is appropriate to seek advice from an employee’s GP or refer the employee to Occupational Health to ensure adequate support can be provided.

How to support “survivors”

In the aftermath of a redundancy program, it is essential to secure commitment and engagement from the remaining workforce to rebuild the organisation. Below are some strategies employers can use to support retained employees’ post-redundancy.

  • Risk assessments: Employers may wish to conduct a targeted risk assessment focusing on workplace mental health post-redundancy. This assessment can pinpoint areas of the business that may be particularly impacted, highlighting where additional support may be necessary. The Health and Safety Executive provides a template for risk assessments for employers.
  • Management training: Employers should ensure that managers understand the importance of supporting the remaining staff and acknowledging the impact the redundancy may have had on them. Managers could receive training in (i) recognising signs of stress (ii) maintaining open communication channels, and (iii) understanding when to seek advice from HR to effectively manage any emerging issues. Managers should also be encouraged to hold regular one-on-one meetings with employees, providing opportunities for individuals to express their concerns and they should closely monitor absences, conduct return-to-work interviews, and make use of occupational health services when necessary.
  • Training and development: If staff are carrying out different duties, managers should consider what retraining needs they will have and consider that employees may need time to get up to speed in their revised roles. Managers should work with employees to ensure they clearly understand any new duties and have the necessary skills to succeed in their roles.
  • Communication: Employers should clearly convey organisational goals and explain how surviving team members can contribute to the organisation’s success. Employers can involve the retained population in shaping the organisation's future by encouraging them to voice concerns and addressing those concerns where possible. Consistent, personalised communication counteracts low morale, engages staff effectively, and ensures clear messaging.

Good practice for supporting employees with mental health and wellbeing

More widely there are a variety of different ways in which employers can support employees who feel that their mental health is impacted to access help, which may include the following:

  • Develop a specific mental health at work policy: This should outline the organisation’s approach to protecting the mental health of employees, including any awareness activities or training, and the support available. This will provide employees with a reference point from which they can understand the employer's position and help ensure a consistent approach is adopted across the business.
  • Management support and training: Managers play a pivotal role in responding to emerging concerns and making decisions that directly impact employees' well-being. Mental health training for managers can help them provide timely support and foster an environment where employees feel comfortable disclosing mental health issues and seek support.
  • Raising awareness: Webinars/all staff training can be used to reinforce the organisation’s commitment to employee wellbeing and raise awareness of mental health, thereby encouraging individuals to care for themselves and to help provide support for others. Adding mental health and wellbeing as a regular agenda item in team meetings can also help remove stigma around the subject.
  • Wellbeing ambassadors: Wellbeing ambassadors are individuals with an interest in and understanding of common mental health problems. They should have mental health awareness training and be available to support colleagues who would like someone to talk to.
  • Employee Assistance Programmes: An EAP is an employer-paid scheme that gives employees access to independent counselling services. An EAP can provide round-the-clock support for staff dealing with a range of personal problems that might have an adverse impact on their wellbeing, health and performance at work.
  • Mental health and wellbeing apps: Digital platforms can offer access to tools, training and exercises to support employees who may not wish to discuss their mental health with others.

In summary

As highlighted throughout this Law Now, prioritising mental health support post-redundancy is imperative for employee well-being and therefore crucial for future organisational success. By implementing proactive strategies and fostering a supportive environment, employers can not only mitigate potential legal risks but also cultivate a resilient and supportive workforce ready to navigate challenges and thrive in the future.