One in four people in the UK will have a mental health challenge at some point in their lives. Anxiety and depression are the most common mental health problems. They are often a reaction to a difficult life event, such as bereavement, but can also be caused by work-related issues.

Why don’t people talk about mental health?

Awareness of mental health is increasing, but we still face a world where people with mental health problems face discrimination and can face challenges getting the help they need. Many people who experience distress try to keep their feelings hidden because they are afraid of other people’s responses. Fear of discrimination and feelings of shame are among the top reasons people give for not telling their colleagues about their mental health problems.

When we create workplace cultures where people can be themselves, it is easier for people to speak about mental health concerns without fear, and easier for them to reach out for help when they need it. Even so, the decision to disclose distress at work is not one people take lightly. Workplaces must become environments where people feel safe to be themselves.

Companies’ awareness of good workplace mental health and wellbeing is growing. However, companies are still struggling in supporting employee mental health and wellbeing.

According to a recent report by the government mental ill-health is now the most common reason for claiming health-related benefits and 86 per cent remain on the benefits for more than three months (compared to 76 per cent for all other claimants). And the evidence shows that the longer people are detached from the labour market, the less chance they have of returning to work.

The cost of poor mental health to the country is also very high. A recent review of the health of Britain’s working-age population carried out by Dame Carol Black estimated that over £100 billion is lost to the economy through ill-health and associated sickness absence and unemployment. In addition, United Kingdom (UK) employers annually pay an estimated £9 billion in statutory sick pay and occupational sick pay, of which we think around £2-4 billion is likely to be paid because of mental ill-health.

Companies can introduce well-being policies and make a serious investment in employee health, but if their activity is not aligned in how people are managed, a supportive and inclusive culture and committed leadership, the policies will not have a real impact. Building a compassionate workplace goes hand in hand with acknowledging the complexity of mental health challenges and respecting people as individuals. Compassionate leadership is supported by a hard business case showing desired outcomes such as improved relationships as well as higher motivation and job satisfaction levels, all of which can lead to enhanced performance and productivity.

Tackling Mental health stigma

Mental health conditions are not rare or restricted to a small proportion of the population. They need not prevent many people from performing effectively and efficiently at work. The UK government has put together programmes available for employers and managers to raise awareness amongst staff and develop their confidence to discuss mental health and well-being at work.

Managing mental health

According to CIPD 2019 study, nearly three-fifths have seen an increase in the number of reported common mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, among employees in the last 12 months. Only a small minority report a decrease. Just one in ten (9%) of organisations have a standalone mental health policy for employees, although a further third incorporates mental health within another policy and one in five are in the process of developing a policy. Most are taking some action to manage employee mental health. The most common action taken is phased return to work and/or other reasonable adjustments last year.

Organisations that focus on improving employee awareness of mental health, increasing managers’ skills and confidence, and encouraging openness and discussion reap the benefits of increased employee engagement. Creating a culture of open discussion means employees feel supported by their organisation and are more likely to access support when they are struggling.

A workforce that enjoys good mental health and well-being may experience lower absenteeism. Investing in the well-being of staff is therefore also an economic issue for business.

Steps to help shape a thriving workforce according to the charity Mind.

Encourage openness and discussion about mental health

An open culture around mental health is a key part of employees feeling their mental health is supported (only 9 per cent of staff in organisations without openness and discussion of mental health feel their organisation supports their mental health). A great first step for organisations is to have a senior leader sign the Mental Health at Work Commitment. Having a senior member of staff such as your CEO signing the Commitment signals your pledge to changing how employees think and act about mental health in the workplace. Running regular internal communications campaigns is another great way to raise awareness of mental health and challenge stigma.

People management is about more than work targets

Employees experiencing poor mental health tend to speak to their line manager first (76 per cent disclosed to their line manager), but a lack of understanding in managers can be a barrier to disclosure – less than half (45 per cent) feel their manager understands their problems. Regular one-to-ones and catch-ups can help maintain good working relationships and build mutual trust. Ensure managers hold one-to-ones with their staff every four to six weeks. Managers must know what support is on offer to staff experiencing poor mental health and can advise on how to access it.

Be aware of your employees’ workload

Not only is this frequently mentioned as a primary source of stress, but those with the highest demands have less time to seek support. Over 1 in 4 employees are working more than 50 hours a week and three-quarters of those with an unmanageable workload had experienced anxiety multiple times in the last month. Employers need to ensure that employees’ workloads are manageable by providing extra support if needed and ensuring that job roles match their abilities and experience. Workload reviews and stress-risk assessments should be carried out on an ongoing basis as well as when jobs are being designed. Staff surveys can be an effective tool to capture information about wellbeing. Ensure you ask staff about things like their workload, leadership and management, opportunities for personal development and internal communication.

Ensure employees feel comfortable disclosing poor mental health

Half of the employees do not feel comfortable disclosing poor mental health at work, but the results suggest that employees are more likely to improve their situation. Managers should be upskilled on how to provide in-work support to staff who are experiencing a mental health problem, including how to handle disclosure, approach a conversation about mental health and explore support measures including reasonable adjustments. Organisations need to create an environment where employees and managers feel supported through the process.

Review and assess mental health and wellbeing support tools

Ineffective support can make an employee’s situation worse and in some cases having no support at all is less detrimental than having ineffective support (17 per cent of those with ineffective support said their situation got worse, compared to 5 per cent of those who had no support at all). Organisations should collect data and report on how often support tools are accessed by employees and request this information from suppliers (e.g. your EAP provider). You should also seek feedback from staff as to how easily accessible, effective and well-publicised your support tools are through regular employee surveys.