Office of the President and Provost (Equality, Diversity & Inclusion)


Mental Health Guidance for Managers

Mental health and equality law

Disability is one of protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010 and some long term mental health conditions and illnesses, such as depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar affective disorders, personality disorders and schizophrenia can all be considered disabilities if they meet the conditions set out in the Equality Act definition of disability. For a mental health condition to meet the definition of disability, it must have a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on a person’s ability to do day-to-day activities. To find out more about how to define disability, you can read more on our ‘Defining Disability’ webpage.

Under the Equality Act 2010, we have a legal duty to implement reasonable adjustments in the workplace to remove the barriers experienced by people with chronic mental health difficulties.

Overview of mental health conditions

It is important to realise that many episodes of mental health illness are short-lived. However, even when people experience more serious, long-term or recurring problems, they are very often able to live meaningful and satisfying lives, especially when adjustments can be made at work to alleviate the effects of their condition.

Mental health issues are given names to help distinguish one group of symptoms from another, but mental health diagnosis is a sensitive topic. For more information, please go to Mind’s introduction to mental health problems.

The most common mental health conditions include:

Anxiety Disorders

Whilst anxiety is a normal feeling, it can become a disorder when the feeling becomes too strong, lasts for a long time, when there is no threatening situation to cause it or it stops a person from doing everyday activities. Anxiety disorders include panic attacks, phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Mood Disorders

Also known as affective disorders or depressive disorders, people experience mood changes or disturbances, generally involving either mania (elation) or depression. Mood disorders include depression and bipolar disorder.

Psychotic Disorders

Psychotic disorders involve altered or distorted thinking or awareness of reality. Although symptoms may vary, two of the most common ones are hallucinations and delusions. Psychotic disorders include schizophrenia, which is often misrepresented in popular culture (it does not mean someone has a 'split personality'). 1 in 100 people will experience schizophrenia during their lifetime and some will never have a resurgence of symptoms.

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are characterised by unhealthy attitudes to or difficulties with eating, and can include anorexia nervosa, bulimia and compulsive eating. Whilst eating problems tend to be more prevalent in women than men, anyone can experience eating problems, regardless of age, gender, weight or background. Many people think that someone with an eating problem will be over- or underweight, or that certain weights are linked to certain eating problems. Neither of these points are true.

Personality Disorders

Personality disorders are often the most misunderstood and stigmatised diagnoses in mental health. These conditions can mean people experience different patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving, experience a more limited range of emotions, attitudes and behaviours, and can be more difficult to change.

Mental health and academia

Mental health issues are common in academia. Whilst there is a limited body of research to evidence this, some research does show a link between the levels of stress academics face and a subsequent impact on mental health. An Australian study[1] found that the rate of mental illness in academic staff was three to four times higher than in the general population whilst other research estimated this to be as high 53% for UK academics[2].

Another study published in 2013 by the University and College Union[3] used health and safety executive measures, assessed against a large sample of over 14,000 university employees, to reveal growing stress levels among academics prompted by heavy workloads, a long hours culture and conflicting management demands. The study also concluded that academics experience higher stress than those in the wider population.

Stress is not considered a medical condition, but it is connected to mental health in several ways. UCL’s own research shows that prolonged exposure to unmanageable stress is linked to psychological conditions such as anxiety and depression as well as physical effects such as heart disease, back pain and headaches[4].

It is important to be aware that statistics show that ‘low skilled’ and low paid employees are also more likely to suffer poor mental health than the general population[5], particularly if an employee feels they have little alternative in the labour market. Therefore, poor mental health may be just as prevalent for UCL staff in lower grades, manual or professional services positions.
Organisational Culture

The way work is organised and the working environment can be contributing factors that affect a person’s mental health. For example, stress can be increased by:

  • Decision-making processes and treatment of employees that are perceived to be unfair
  • Job insecurity, for example among employees on time-limited funding contracts
  • Long or irregular working hours
  • Prevalence of bullying, harassment and victimisation

There is evidence that interventions by managers to improve working conditions can help reduce stress and improve mental health at work. For example, by increasing employee control over their work, enabling greater employee participation in decision-making and encouraging flexible working practices to help improve work-life balance[6]. Often it is about utilising common sense. Managers who regularly ask staff how they are and take an interest in their team’s lives outside work are more likely to build trust and be able to effectively prevent and manage stress and mental ill-health at work. Conversely, managers who assume staff are okay, are indecisive and inconsistent, give mostly negative feedback and create unrealistic demands or deadlines are likely to exacerbate stress. Good line management is therefore crucial in supporting well-being, spotting early signs of mental health problems and initiating early intervention, while poor line management may exacerbate or even cause mental health problems through an unhelpful approach or behaviour.

Impact of work and non-work factors on mental health

Most people’s mental health problems are a combination of influencing factors both inside and outside work. For example, someone experiencing severe anxiety due to a debt problem might find that the demands of their job, which under normal circumstances are manageable, are now beyond them. Conversely, someone who is under prolonged stress at work might find difficulties in their relationships outside work, due to working excessive hours or using alcohol as a coping mechanism. This then creates a negative feedback loop which further undermines their performance and puts greater pressure on them in the workplace. It is therefore neither possible, nor useful, to disentangle the impact of various factors on mental health and so it is in the manager’s interests actively to support staff with mental health problems, whatever the original cause or trigger.
Supporting Employees

Rather than trying to diagnose or resolve an employee’s mental health problem, the best way of supporting someone is to listen sensitively, non-judgmentally and signpost them to more appropriate sources of help, such as Workplace Health, the Employee Assistance Programme (details below), their GP, or a relevant helpline.

UCL has an Employee Assistance Programme, Spectrum.Life, that provides confidential, impartial advice and support 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The service is free for UCL employees to access and staff do not need permission from a manager to contact Spectrum.Life. Through Spectrum.Life, staff can access a number of services including face-to-face and telephone counselling from qualified Advisor/Counsellor). What's included?

  • Spectrum.Life provide emotional, in the moment support, 24/7, 365 days a year
  • Spectrum.Life Information Services provision has specific and qualified experts including, financial and tax advisers for Financial Wellbeing issues and Parenting Coaches

It can be very hard to judge whether to suggest that an employee seeks help for their mental health. Not everyone in distress will have a mental health problem, so signposting to medical help may not always be appropriate or well-received. If you do decide to do so, think about the language you use and use a common-sense approach. For example, suggesting that somebody ‘seems to have a lot to cope with and might benefit from talking to somebody about it’ is different to suggesting that the person has a mental health problem. Similarly, it may be helpful to regularly remind your wider team of the support and resources available as standard practice.

Examples of reasonable adjustments for mental health

Under the Equality Act 2010, UCL has a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments for staff with long term mental health difficulties that have a substantial impact on their ability to carry out day to day activities. This means that managers are required to make reasonable adjustments to a person’s job or working environment to reduce the impact of a person’s health condition on their ability to work, and to ensure they are getting the right support. The types of reasonable adjustments that can help people with mental health problems stay productive at work are changes that are often relatively easy and inexpensive to put in place, with some thought and preparation. Many of these are just good management practice, and are beneficial to all staff. Examples of some adjustments may be:

  • Allowing a person who had difficulty travelling in crowded trains to start early and finish late in order to avoid the rush hour.
  • Removing the expectation that an administrator covers reception during the receptionist’s lunch break because they found this direct contact with staff and students aggravated their mental health condition.
  • Arranging for someone who became very drowsy after her monthly medication to take a day off and make up the hours elsewhere.
  • Appointing a ‘buddy’ or ‘mentor’ – someone on a similar grade and outside the usual management structure – to show a new employee the ropes and help them settle into the workplace.
  • Enabling a person to arrange their hours to permit them to attend a weekly therapy session.
  • Permitting someone to take a short break out of the office when they became particularly anxious.
  • Providing a job applicant with questions in advance to reduce stress, anxiety that might impact ability to think on the spot.
  • Supporting someone to prioritise and manage their workload.
  • The possibility of working from home, a reduction in hours or relief from some responsibilities to prevent the person having to take time off sick during fluctuations in their condition.
  • Arranging for someone who finds the distractions of an open-plan office detracted from their work performance to have a desk in a quieter area.
  • Enabling a person to arrange their annual leave to allow regularly spaced breaks throughout the year.
  • Creating the possibility of part-time working and job-share arrangements for someone who was unable to work full time.

It is important to note that UCL managers are encouraged to support all staff with mental health problems not just those protected by equality law.

It may be helpful to identify sources of funding for reasonable adjustments.Sources of support at UCL

Sources of support at UCL

For enquiries about reasonable adjustments, including for people with mental health conditions, there are a variety of sources of support at UCL:

Sources of further information about mental health