Mental health in the workplace

01 July 2019

Jerome Smail, freelance journalist, researches the extent and implications of this important issue, and provides information as well as helpful guidance

Mental health is a key issue in society as a whole but one of the major battlegrounds is the workplace. In fact, two-thirds (66%) of workers have personally experienced mental ill-health, according to a study by professional services organisation Accenture. 

Although awareness surrounding mental health in the workplace is improving, misperceptions persist – as does an unnecessary stigma. Too many employees still feel uncomfortable about discussing or disclosing problems with their mental health. The same Accenture survey found that the majority (61%) of workers suffering from mental health problems have not spoken to anyone at work about their issues. 

What’s more, as many as 42% of employees call in sick claiming to be suffering from a physical illness when the real reason is a mental health issue, according to a report by insurance organisation BHSF. In the study of 1,001 full-time employees, only 15% of employees said they would tell their boss if they were struggling with mental health issues, with reasons for not divulging problems including fears of not being promoted, poor grading in assessments or being seen as a weak link in the team.

The study also found that over half of respondents (56%) suffered from stress, a third (36%) from anxiety and a quarter (25%) from depression, and yet nearly two-thirds (63%) of employees felt that mental health was stigmatised by either all or some of their colleagues. 

...fears of not being promoted, poor grading in assessments or being seen as a weak link in the team

Dr Philip McCrea, chief medical officer at BHSF, says the scale of the problem is huge, and being massively underestimated by employers, with employees feeling they have to mask the issues they are facing. Dr McCrea says “Although shocking, these findings don’t surprise me. A more open culture must be created in workplaces across the UK, and employers have to take responsibility for this change.”

While the BHSF research showed employees are taking time off for mental health issues, other research suggests that presenteeism is a problem, with many sufferers simply soldiering on. More than a fifth (22%) of employees went into work when feeling mentally unwell in 2017, according to research by Canada Life Group Insurance. Again, stigma appears to be playing a part. A fifth (21%) of respondents admitted they are more likely to go into work when feeling unwell from a mental health problem rather than a physical illness, while 15% thought their boss and colleagues would not take them seriously if they took time off for a mental health issue.

Ironically – although perhaps unsurprisingly – the workplace itself appears to be adding to mental health problems. As many as 88% of respondents to the Canada Life survey said work was either the main cause or a contributing factor to their mental health problems. However, only a fifth (21%) of employees received dedicated mental health support from their employer.

Paul Avis, marketing director of Canada Life Group Insurance, believes mental health issues can be a vicious cycle for employees, fuelled by persistent presenteeism and the need to be ‘always on’. “Employees suffering from mental illness should be focusing on getting better, rather than struggling into the office, as the stress of work is unlikely to lead to an improvement in their overall condition,” he says.

Of course, it’s in the interest of every business to look after the mental wellbeing of its employees, not just as a duty of care but also for the sake of its own effectiveness; the average employee takes 8.4 sick days each year due to a mental health problem, according to the BHSF report.

Dr McCrea observes: “Mental health is currently costing the UK economy billions, and the cost of non-intervention is far greater than the cost of intervention. It’s up to employers to take a proactive approach to managing mental health in the workplace before it’s too late.”

However, the world of work appears to be slow at catching on to the importance of mental wellbeing. Echoing the BHSF report’s findings, a survey of 1,089 workers by employee services organisation Personal Group revealed that two-thirds (66%) of workers feel their employer does not offer enough support for mental health in the workplace. But perhaps even more significantly, while 80% of employees told the survey they had noticed an overall increase in awareness of mental health generally in the UK, 62% said they had noticed no corresponding change in the levels of awareness in their own workplaces.

Rebekah Tapping, group human resources (HR) director at Personal Group, says: “It is surprising, not to mention a real shame, that such a large number of employees still feel there isn’t enough mental health support available in the workplace, and especially surprising as awareness of the topic has significantly increased in recent years.

“It is more important than ever that business leaders and decision makers break the culture of stigma and silence around mental health and start making it a management priority and ensuring that a range of support is available for those who need it.”

Avis agrees, saying: “Despite a noticeable increase in the acceptance of mental health issues in society, employees are still concerned that their boss and colleagues would not take their mental health issues seriously, or worse, that they are hindering themselves for future opportunities at their company by taking time off for a mental illness.

“Employers must show that they are serious about supporting employees with mental health and stress-related issues. Communicate that it’s fine to take time off to get better and there won’t be any negative impact on their career for doing so.”

One of the most common methods for employers to offer support with mental wellbeing is through employee assistance programmes (EAPs). 

Personal Group reports the number of mental health enquiries to EAPs by UK employees rose by 31% last year, outpacing all other advice calls, including those relating to relationships and general health issues.

So, the need for good help and good advice is clear. But how can employers go further and not only provide the support employees need but create an environment that minimises mental health problems?

Mark Scanlon, chief executive officer (CEO) of Personal Group, advocates a holistic approach to mental health support. He says: “To effectively improve wellbeing, a strategy must be put in place which considers physical, emotional as well as financial wellbeing. If an employee is suffering in one area of their life it will often manifest itself in other areas.

“A truly all-inclusive health and wellness programme that acknowledges and supports employees at each point of this triangle of wellbeing is the only way to promote meaningful employee wellbeing.”

However, Scanlon does acknowledge that an increasing number of employers are waking up to the fact that more must be done to improve their employees’ wellbeing. “Mental health in the workplace is no longer a taboo subject,” he says, “but only by providing resources and open conversation can we truly start to provide the support our employees need.”

According to Brendan Street, professional head of emotional wellbeing at Nuffield Health, an organisation’s approach to mental wellbeing should start with clear leadership. He says: “If employees see managers and directors investing in employee wellbeing, they’ll be more likely to speak up, as the stigma is lifted – so focus on getting buy-in from the top.”

Expert advice is also essential. “Doctors and psychotherapists can advise on the best ways to start conversations with employees and how to lead them,” says Street. “They may also be able to suggest some signs of mental distress you might notice in those employees who don’t yet feel comfortable speaking out. Being able to notice subtle behaviour changes like irritability or turning up late means you can take an employee aside for an informal chat.”

Using diagnostic or medical language can be daunting for employees, so stick to familiar terms that describe symptoms or feelings in common language. Developing the art of listening is also key. Street believes that “sometimes what you don’t say can be as important as what you do”. He advocates the ‘active listening’ technique, which involves concentrating and offering deep empathy with what the speaker is saying.

“Sometimes, the only speaking you need to do is repeating back what your employee has said to you or rephrasing it to demonstrate you’ve understood the meaning,” he says. “Employees may only get the courage to speak once, so it’s crucial you’re ready to listen and demonstrate you’re actively listening – especially as research shows 15% of staff who’ve spoken to a manager about their mental health felt their disclosure was either dismissed or they were looked at differently by their employer.”

Joe Gaunt, founder and CEO of wellbeing organisation Hero, also champions a top-down approach. He says: “Managers have daily direct exposure to the majority of any workforce and so it’s vital you invest in training them to recognise a shift in someone’s behaviour and how to better support that person.

“This all comes down to having a strong wellness strategy in place. Your managers must advocate the programme, being confident and able to direct team members to the advice, update them on seminars, hold one-to-ones and provide additional support to begin to tackle mental health within the workplace proactively.”

Care of employees’ mental wellbeing isn’t a job just for leaders, however. In fact, some employees do not feel comfortable speaking to their own manager about their mental health, creating a barrier to help. The Willis Towers Watson Global Benefits Attitudes Survey revealed that only one in three (34%) of employees would seek the support of a manager if they were suffering from anxiety or depression.

...common methods for employers to offer support with mental wellbeing is through employee assistance programmes... 

According to Mike Blake, wellbeing lead at Willis Towers Watson, peer-based mental health champions can help overcome this, as they can offer a confidential advisory service to those suffering from mental health issues, with no direct involvement of a line manager. “Champions are often trained in mental health first aid, so they can spot the signs of mental ill-health, and guide employees to the most appropriate source of help,” he says.

There certainly seems to be a willingness among employees to help their peers. While 64% of respondents to the Personal Group survey said they believe they could provide support for someone struggling with a mental illness, 58% also said they would like to be provided with mental health awareness training by their employer to help develop their understanding and skills. Three-fifths (60%) said they thought they would be able to notice the signs of someone suffering from a mental health problem, while 36% said they were unsure.

Another key to launching and managing an effective wellbeing strategy is ongoing measurement and evaluation. “Surveying your workforce helps you understand which areas of the business need support or development and how employees feel,” says Gaunt. “This feedback is invaluable to shape your strategy.”

Developing early intervention strategies is critical. This includes the provision of mental health first-aiders, providing adequate mental health training for managers and champions, as well as resilience-building for employees. But while these are all effective and worthwhile components of a mental wellbeing strategy, it’s also important for leaders, managers and mental health champions to get to know employees on a personal level. 

...mental health awareness training by their employer to help develop their understanding and skills

Vicki Field, HR director at London Doctors Clinic, explains: “There are also short-term issues which may affect the mental wellbeing of your employees, such as life events like bereavements, divorces and family problems that can cause significant emotional distress for people. 

“We are all only human, which means there is an impact at work. People may be less focused, or show visible emotions, or even dress differently. There may be a few weeks or months where behaviour changes, or work drops off, and offering support to your team member during this time can have significant benefits for all parties in the long run.”

The personal touch can go a long way in helping employees to open up about their anxieties and issues so you can give them the help they need. There is no substitute for caring about – and caring for – your people.

This article was featured in the July/August 2019 issue of the magazine.