Enforce workers' rights

NS/Fabian Society Second-Term Agenda - Enforce workers' rights. By Nick Burkitt

Every year, the government makes us check that our cars are not breaking the law, with the MOT test. If our car fails, we don't get fined or sent to prison - we just get told what to do to put it right. We need the same approach for the new rights at work, including the minimum wage, parental leave and paid holiday. There should be an "MOT" (or, rather, a DOE, or Department of Employment test) for employers, overseen by a new, proactive enforcement agency.

The government wants a flexible labour market, but one that is underpinned by an "infrastructure of decency and fairness". It believes that fairness and efficiency can go together at work. But while many employers provide much better terms and conditions than they are required to by law, hundreds of thousands of people do not get even their minimum, basic rights.

Typically, these workers are low-paid and low-skilled. They are often non-unionised, thus vulnerable to exploitation. Typically, they are care and nursing-home staff; hairdressers; bar, hotel and restaurant workers; shop assistants and cleaners. Despite the rhetoric about the knowledge-driven economy, they are growing occupations that will remain significant in the labour market - you cannot get your furniture moved by ISDN, or your hair cut by e-mail. Last year, Citizens Advice Bureaux dealt with 700,000 employment-related cases, and the conciliation service Acas received more than half a million inquiries about employment rights. Many more people go to other organisations, such as the Low Pay Unit.

Workers who are denied one employment right, because they are in a weak bargaining position, tend to miss out on others, too. Many of those who complain about not getting the minimum wage, for example, are also losing out on rights such as holiday and sick pay, itemised payslips and proper breaks.

Some are not aware of their legal entitlements; others have no idea how to enforce them, or fear losing their jobs if they try to do so. Even if a claim for unfair dismissal leads to compensation, the amount is likely to be small, and the worker will still be out of a job. In any case, many workers are daunted by the idea of going to a tribunal. It takes months, it can be very stressful, and it can be as damaging for the worker's future reputation as for the employer's.

Many employers, especially small firms without a personnel specialist, do not know about or fully understand their obligations to their workforce. Some regulations, such as those on working time, are highly complex, while others relate to situations that arise only rarely. In a company with ten employees, a pregnancy will happen, on average, only once a decade. For small employers, especially in low-profitability sectors, it is not worth the time to learn the detail of such employment law.

The solution is not to deprive large numbers of workers of their rights in the name of "cutting red tape". Such employers need help, backed by state resources, to meet their responsibilities. They need information, but also practical assistance.

To ensure that all working people in Britain enjoy the minimum rights guaranteed them by law, and to avoid the growth of destructive and divisive legal disputes, an employment rights enforcement agency should be established.

The Inland Revenue already has a successful enforcement agency for the national minimum wage. Using this model, the new body would act as a neutral auditor to check that employers are meeting their legal obligations to their workforce. Acting on tip-offs and anonymous individual complaints, as well as random "spot checks", the agency would enter a workplace as an advocate of neither employer nor worker.

Where an employer is not meeting its legal obligations - workers not being given paid holiday, part-timers not getting equivalent benefits to full-timers in the same job, or parents being denied parental leave - the enforcement agency would inform the employer and provide guidance on how to rectify the situation.

To minimise the burden on small and low-profitability employers, the agency could put them in touch with support services, including (state-funded) "locum personnel officers", who could help them adopt current best practice and devise effective work-life balance policies. Thus the productivity benefits of more enlightened and sophisticated management practice would be spread to those parts of the economy that tend to miss out on them.

However, if an employer continues to deny workers their rights, the agency would have clear and effective powers to impose financial penalties and, where necessary, to take a worker's case to an employment tribunal or to the courts - just as the minimum wage enforcement agency does now.

The MOT test keeps rickety and dangerous cars off the roads; a new Department of Employment test could do the same for employers.

Nick Burkitt is a research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research; Richard Dunstan is employment policy officer at the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux. This is the seventh in a series of articles, prepared by the NS and the Fabian Society, on ideas for a second Labour term

This article first appeared in the 22 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the great cover-up

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“I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”: why aren’t we taking mental health sick days?

Some employees with mental health problems fake reasons for taking days off, or struggle in regardless. What should companies be doing differently?

“I would go to the loo and just cry my eyes out. And sometimes colleagues could hear me. Then I would just go back to my desk as if nothing had happened. And, of course, no one would say anything because I would hide it as well as I could.”

How many times have you heard sobbing through a work toilet door – or been the person in the cubicle?

Jaabir Ramlugon is a 31-year-old living in north London. He worked in IT for four years, and began having to take time off for depressive episodes after starting at his company in 2012. He was eventually diagnosed with borderline personality disorder last January.

At first, he would not tell his employers or colleagues why he was taking time off.

“I was at the point where I was in tears going to work on the train, and in tears coming back,” he recalls. “Some days, I just felt such a feeling of dread about going into work that I just physically couldn’t get up ... I wouldn’t mention my mental health; I would just say that my asthma was flaring up initially.”

It wasn’t until Ramlugon was signed off for a couple of months after a suicide attempt that he told his company what he was going through. Before that, a “culture of presenteeism” at his work – and his feeling that he was “bunking off” because there was “nothing physically wrong” – made him reluctant to tell the truth about his condition.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem; the way they treated me amplified that”

Eventually, he was dismissed by his company via a letter describing him as a “huge burden” and accusing him of “affecting” its business. He was given a dismissal package, but feels an alternative role or working hours – a plan for a gradual return to work – would have been more supportive.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem. The way they treated me definitely amplified that, especially with the language that they used. The letter was quite nasty because it talked about me being a huge burden to the company.”

Ramlugon is not alone. Over three in ten employees say they have experienced mental health problems while in employment, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Under half (43 per cent) disclose their problem to their employer, and under half (46 per cent) say their organisation supports staff with mental health problems well.

I’ve spoken to a number of employees in different workplaces who have had varying experiences of suffering from mental ill health at work.


Taking mental health days off sick hit the headlines after an encouraging message from a CEO to his employee went viral. Madalyn Parker, a web developer, informed her colleagues in an out-of-office message that she would be taking “today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health – hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100 per cent”.

Her boss Ben Congleton’s reply, which was shared tens of thousands of times, personally thanked her – saying it’s “an example to us all” to “cut through the stigma so we can bring our whole selves to work”.

“Thank you for sending emails like this,” he wrote. “Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health – I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organisations.”

Congleton went on to to write an article entitled “It’s 2017 and Mental Health is still an issue in the workplace”, arguing that organisations need to catch up:

“It’s 2017. We are in a knowledge economy. Our jobs require us to execute at peak mental performance. When an athlete is injured they sit on the bench and recover. Let’s get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different.”

But not all companies are as understanding.

In an investigation published last week, Channel 5 News found that the number of police officers taking sick days for poor mental health has doubled in six years. “When I did disclose that I was unwell, I had some dreadful experiences,” one retired detective constable said in the report. “On one occasion, I was told, ‘When you’re feeling down, just think of your daughters’. My colleagues were brilliant; the force was not.”

“One day I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”

One twenty-something who works at a newspaper echoes this frustration at the lack of support from the top. “There is absolutely no mental health provision here,” they tell me. “HR are worse than useless. It all depends on your personal relationships with colleagues.”

“I was friends with my boss so I felt I could tell him,” they add. “I took a day off because of anxiety and explained what it was to my boss afterwards. But that wouldn’t be my blanket approach to it – I don’t think I’d tell my new boss [at the same company], for instance. I have definitely been to work feeling awful because if I didn’t, it wouldn’t get done.”

Presenteeism is a rising problem in the UK. Last year, British workers took an average of 4.3 days off work due to illness – the lowest number since records began. I hear from many interviewees that they feel guilty taking a day off for a physical illness, which makes it much harder to take a mental health day off.

“I felt a definite pressure to be always keen as a young high-flyer and there were a lot of big personalities and a lot of bitchiness about colleagues,” one woman in her twenties who works in media tells me. “We were only a small team and my colleague was always being reprimanded for being workshy and late, so I didn’t want to drag the side down.”

Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which was then changed to anxiety and depression, she didn’t tell her work about her illness. “Sometimes I struggled to go to work when I was really sick. And my performance was fine. I remember constantly sitting there sort of eyeballing everyone in mild amusement that I was hiding in plain sight. This was, at the time, vaguely funny for me. Not much else was.

“One day I just felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen so I locked myself in the bathroom for a bit then went home, telling everyone I had a stomach bug so had to miss half the day,” she tells me. “I didn’t go in the next day either and concocted some elaborate story when I came back.”

Although she has had treatment and moved jobs successfully since, she has never told her work the real reason for her time off.

“In a small company you don’t have a confidential person to turn to; everyone knows everyone.”

“We want employers to treat physical and mental health problems as equally valid reasons for time off sick,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at the mental health charity Mind. “Staff who need to take time off work because of stress and depression should be treated the same as those who take days off for physical health problems, such as back or neck pain.”

She says that categorising a day off as a “mental health sick day” is unhelpful, because it could “undermine the severity and impact a mental health problem can have on someone’s day-to-day activities, and creates an artificial separation between mental and physical health.”

Instead, employers should take advice from charities like Mind on how to make the mental health of their employees an organisational priority. They can offer workplace initiatives like Employee Assistance Programmes (which help staff with personal and work-related problems affecting their wellbeing), flexible working hours, and clear and supportive line management.

“I returned to work gradually, under the guidance of my head of department, doctors and HR,” one journalist from Hertfordshire, who had to take three months off for her second anorexia inpatient admission, tells me. “I was immensely lucky in that my line manager, head of department and HR department were extremely understanding and told me to take as much time as I needed.”

“They didnt make me feel embarrassed or ashamed – such feelings came from myself”

“They knew that mental health – along with my anorexia I had severe depression – was the real reason I was off work ... I felt that my workplace handled my case in an exemplary manner. It was organised and professional and I wasn’t made to feel embarrassed or ashamed from them – such feelings came from myself.”

But she still at times felt “flaky”, “pathetic” and “inefficient”, despite her organisation’s good attitude. Indeed, many I speak to say general attitudes have to change in order for people to feel comfortable about disclosing conditions to even the closest friends and family, let alone a boss.

“There are levels of pride,” says one man in his thirties who hid his addiction while at work. “You know you’re a mess, but society dictates you should be functioning.” He says this makes it hard to have “the mental courage” to broach this with your employer. “Especially in a small company – you don’t have a confidential person to turn to. Everyone knows everyone.”

“But you can’t expect companies to deal with it properly when it’s dealt with so poorly in society as it is,” he adds. “It’s massively stigmatised, so of course it’s going to be within companies as well. I think there has to be a lot more done generally to make it not seem like it’s such a big personal failing to become mentally ill. Companies need direction; it’s not an easy thing to deal with.”

Until we live in a society where it feels as natural taking a day off for feeling mentally unwell as it does for the flu, companies will have to step up. It is, after all, in their interest to have their staff performing well. When around one in four people in Britain experience mental ill health each year, it’s not a problem they can afford to ignore.

If your manager doesn’t create the space for you to be able to talk about wellbeing, it can be more difficult to start this dialogue. It depends on the relationship you have with your manager, but if you have a good relationship and trust them, then you could meet them one-to-one to discuss what’s going on.

Having someone from HR present will make the meeting more formal, and normally wouldn’t be necessary in the first instance. But if you didn’t get anywhere with the first meeting then it might be a sensible next step.

If you still feel as though you’re not getting the support you need, contact Acas or Mind's legal line on 0300 466 6463.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the great cover-up