Tackling mental health stigma in the workplace

January 31, 2020

Mental health is a hot topic for all and is seeing heavy coverage in all aspects of the media. Many employers will no doubt be looking at ways to promote positive wellbeing in the workplace and encourage staff to talk more openly about their mental health.

The impact of mental health in the workplace has been brought into sharp focus particularly over the past few years and has featured heavily on the list of issues that HR departments have had to deal with. Whilst there is no doubt that progress has been and continues to be made in the area of mental health, research suggests that there is still a long way to go.

According to a recent survey, employees are three times more likely to discuss their physical health over mental illness at work. Only 14% of 2,000 workers polled said they felt comfortable discussing their mental health worries at work, compared with 42% of workers who felt able to talk about physical conditions. Despite the increased awareness and understanding of mental health problems, the results seem to suggest that there continues to be a strong stigma attached to discussing mental health conditions in the workplace.

Statistics also suggest that stress at work remains a growing problem. According to the TUC, 15.4 million working days were lost due to stress, depression or anxiety and accounted for 57% of all absences in 2017-2018. Meanwhile, the Stevenson / Farmer ‘Thriving at Work’ review reported that poor mental health costs UK employers between £33 billion and £42 billion a year, with an annual cost to the UK economy of between £74 billion and £99 billion.

Whilst the financial implications are clear and there has been a shift in attitudes towards mental health in recent years, there is increasing pressure on employers to do more to break down taboos and support people with mental health in the workplace. Below are our top three tips for employers.

  1. Raise awareness within your organisation and create a culture that encourages and supports staff to be open about their mental health

Part of the problem with mental health is the stigma attached to it. Employees are often fearful of how they will be perceived and what impact the disclosure of a mental health problem will have on their professional careers. Some employers are also frightened of approaching an employee they believe is in need of help for fear of causing more harm than good.

Holding regular activities, events and training sessions throughout the year will help raise awareness of mental health and send a clear message to employees that the issue of mental health is being taken seriously. Ensuring that key figures within the organisation such as HR representatives and senior managers are involved in actively engaging with employees, will help start conversations about mental health and foster an open and supportive workplace culture. Over time, employees should begin to feel more confident about talking about their mental health.

  1. Review your policies and procedures

Mental health issues can arise as a result of factors both inside and outside the workplace. For example, there may be issues to do with workload or family problems that are contributing to ill mental health.

Considering ways in which you can amend or introduce policies to support employees in respect of these matters will assist in dealing with mental health problems at work. For example, can employees work flexibly or remotely from work to enable them to better manage childcare or other family responsibilities?

If employees are having problems with a difficult manager or colleague, are they able to raise their concerns with HR without fear of repercussions? Additionally, it may be that someone is struggling to cope with the demands of their job. Additional training or mentoring could help them cope better and overcome their difficulties.

It is also worth Company’s considering the use of a stress at work policy. This is something which would be relatively simple for an employer to include, but would be valuable to employees and could support employees by signposting the help available to them through the employer and their colleagues.

  1. Ensure line managers are trained and make use of the public resources available

Line managers have an important role to play in identifying and addressing mental health issues in the workplace. However, they need to be equipped with the right skills and knowledge to be able to do this. The 2019 CIPD Health and Wellbeing at Work survey revealed that just 18% of professionals questioned agreed that their managers are “confident and competent to spot the early warning signs of mental ill health” in work. Organisations should therefore invest in training their line managers to recognise the early signs of a mental health condition and on how best to support colleagues in a confident and supportive manner. Adequate training will enable line managers to develop the soft skills necessary to encourage disclosure of a mental health problem.

There are a number of helpful guides that ACAS has produced for employers on how to promote a positive mental health culture in the workplace and how to deal with problems as and when they arise. Additionally, mental health charities such as MIND and SANE have a wealth of resources available on their websites aimed at informing people about mental health conditions and what employers can do to encourage a culture of openness and inclusivity.


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