Stress and mental health challenges for employees

Written by
Rebecca Ireland

05 Oct 2016

05 Oct 2016 • by Rebecca Ireland

The scale of the problem

It is estimated that 1 in 4 people will experience some kind of mental health issue in the course of a year. Anxiety and depression are the most common. According to the 2015 CIPD Absence Management Survey, two-fifths of employers reported an increase in stress and mental health issues. In the public sector that figure increased to half. The three biggest causes of stress were stated to be workloads, non-work factors, such as relationships and family, and management style. But it’s not just the personal cost.

The Centre for Mental Health estimates that 91 million days are lost each year due to mental health issues. This costs employers £26 billion a year. That’s £1,035 for every single employee in the UK.

In addition, the stigma of mental health issues and fear of discrimination mean that employees can be reluctant to admit to a stress or mental health issue. In a July 2015 survey carried out by Mind, the mental health charity, 48% of employees said that they would feel uncomfortable talking to their employers about their mental health. That view is echoed by Ruby Wax, who, despite being a long-standing campaigner on mental health issues, believes that people with a mental health issue should not tell their bosses about it. In a recent Blake Morgan survey, 65% of respondents gave shame, social stigma and fear of detriment as reasons why employees may feel unable to be open with their employers.

Businesses are already under pressure. In many organisations outsourcing and restructuring have resulted in reduced headcount and budgets. Very few organisations can afford to have their staff, particularly in key roles, absent from their business for, potentially, an extended period, or easily meet the additional management costs incurred.  


How to spot the signs?

Line managers are key in spotting the early signs that an employee may be suffering from stress at work or mental health issues. Difficulties with concentration, conflict with colleagues, increased absences or a dip in performance are all warning signs that something is wrong. Therefore, line managers should be alert to any deterioration in an employee’s performance, conduct or attendance. However, many line managers receive no training in identifying and managing mental health issues.

We will cover strategies and practical tips for managing stress and mental health in the workplace in future articles. A good starting point is to adopt the good practice model in the Health and Safety Executive’s “Management Standards for work related stress”.

However, one of the best ways of managing mental health in the workplace is to create a culture where people feel able to talk about their condition. 

Its good to talk!

A significant concern is the issue of communication with absent employees. This is perhaps understandable. HR or line managers may be unsure about how often to contact the absent employee, if at all. It can be uncomfortable for managers, and stressful for staff, to deal with those discussions.  In our survey, 63% of respondents said that communication with the individual was the biggest single problem.  

However, out of sight should not mean out of mind. This is a view supported by the ACAS guidance, Promoting Positive Mental Health at Work, and the Mind publication How to support staff who are experiencing a mental health problem. Communication lines need to be kept open and employees should be encouraged to keep in touch regularly so that there is open and meaningful communication. HR or the line manager should try to agree with the employee the frequency of contact and how contact should be made. This can include text and email, as well as the telephone. Whatever is agreed, it would be sensible to confirm this in writing. Maintaining communication with absent employees is particularly important in addressing isolation, a common feeling when an employee may be suffering from stress and anxiety. Employees cite regular communication as one of the most important factors in feeling that their employers are supportive. We will come back to the issue of communication in future articles.   

Our next article will look at ways of helping employees who are suffering from stress and anxiety through non-work factors, such as caring responsibilities.