Earlier this month, a Bill proposed by Tory MP, Gavin Barwell, which would repeal current legal provisions preventing people with mental conditions acting as company directors, passed through its second reading in the House of Commons. As well as broadening the boundaries of who will be able to take directorship of an organisation, this is part of a wider campaign aiming to remove discrimination on the grounds of mental health from the workplace, which will have an impact on SMEs.
Given the clamour for reducing red tape to allow small businesses and start-ups to grow, some may be concerned that this could be yet another piece of costly legislation. Yet there is no need for concern. Any legislation covering this is likely to be incorporated into the existing Equality Act, as it already has provisions for protected characteristics and it seems perfectly logical for mental health to simply be slotted within the existing framework.
It seems certain, therefore, that those with mental health conditions will be given suitable legal protection in the next couple of years. This legislation will hopefully bring the discussion about mental health to the front of people’s minds but it will not be enough alone to transform the existing stigma.
There will still be people who look at some individuals as different and make a decision based on that, whether that difference is mental health, physical disability or the colour of their skin.
A survey released recently by St Patrick’s University Hospital in Dublin found that 61% of respondents would discriminate against hiring someone with a history of mental illness on the grounds that they may be unreliable. Given that every year, one in four of us will experience a mental health problem, this is a massive amount of potential workers to exclude. Anyone that saw Channel 4’s World’s Maddest Job Interview will have seen the discriminatory opinions of the interviewers, yet the candidates with mental health conditions were those deemed best for the job roles.
So not only will discrimination against those with mental health conditions soon risk leading to an Employment Tribunal, but it also leaves those companies that continue to act in this way at a distinct disadvantage in the employment market as they eliminate a massive proportion of highly talented individuals from their workforce.
We should celebrate difference, rather than assuming someone can’t do something because of an opinion not based on fact.
Over the next few years, as well as changes in legislation, I expect to see great changes in people’s attitudes. Talking about mental health will help owners of SMEs make informed choices and allow them to support everyone in their workforce as, given the statistics, it is highly likely that at least one of their employees will be facing a mental health condition at any one time. A healthy, happy and honest workforce is likely to be far more productive and help those small companies grow.
Suzanne McMinn, head of human resources at Workplace Law.