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6 - 7 July 2023
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Should employers be taking a gendered approach to managing stress and mental health?

Philip Crosbie from law firm Eversheds Sutherland considers whether employers should be taking a gendered approach to managing stress and mental health. Taking a gendered approach to the management of any health and safety risk is relatively rare. Is the case made out that such an approach would work for stress and mental health?

We can draw parallels from a risk that is arguably much more objective and measurable; manual handling. In the Health and Safety Executive guidance INDG 143 ‘Manual handling at work’ the HSE illustrates lifting and lowering risks through the use of different weight limits for men and women. The gendered approach here, at face value, is that men are stronger than women and therefore can be expected to handle greater weights before being exposed to a potential injury. This is an example of a gendered approach in theory.

We question how many times this approach has been adopted in practice? How many readers work within organisations that assess manual handling tasks based on the gender of those individuals performing them? Is there any evidence of women being prohibited from lifting items that men are otherwise permitted to?

Could such a gendered approach work when deciding upon an organisation’s approach to managing stress and mental health? It has been suggested that the broad characteristics sometimes attributed to different genders necessitate different approaches. Whilst these are entirely generalisations, women are said to be more willing to be open and discuss issues with their mental health, whereas men are often seen as more reluctant, particularly in perceived ‘macho’ cultures where individuals feel as if they will be treated differently as a result.

In order to properly consider the question posed, we have to take heed of the warning contained within the HSE’s manual handling guidance: “The guidelines are derived from lifting capacity data which show differences between men and women in the population (rather than individuals).” The data can only ever provide an average and, as with any risk assessment exercise, the focus needs to be on individuals, as diverse as they might be.

The duty on employers under Section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 includes ensuring, so far as is reasonably practicable, the welfare of all employees, not simply broad groups that identify to a particular gender. Just as some women will be stronger than men, some men will be more likely to come forward with mental health concerns than women.

We therefore propose that taking a gendered approach is not the best way forward; taking a diverse approach would be much more appropriate. Taking a diverse approach requires employers to consider the range of characteristics across the workforce, rather than assigning particular gender categories. It may be considered impractical to tailor the approach to each individual employee, but some effort should be made to address particular characteristics across the workforce.

Examples for reflection could include:

Can helplines be accessed using the native languages within the work force?

Are there opportunities for employees to be proactively asked about their mental health within a private forum, rather than a group consultation?

Are discussions always labelled as ‘mental health’, which could create a reluctance to engage?

Is there a way for mental health support to be discreet – Can it be offered in a way that does not require separation from a team during the working day?

Rather than requiring a call to an assistance line (a very pro-active step which requires immediate engagement), could a text conversation be more appropriate?

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