Written by
Chris O'Sullivan

Published
12 Dec 2016

Societal shifts towards mental health

12 Dec 2016 • by Chris O'Sullivan

Enviable improvement has been seen in public attitudes towards cancer over the past 20 years, with awareness and attitudes dramatically improving both in society, and in the workplace. Studies have described how one of the most feared diseases of the 21st century has seen huge advances in early diagnosis and treatment meaning that death rates are declining and there are more than 30 million cancer survivors worldwide. Cancer has moved from being a topic discussed in hushed tones and with fear and trepidation, to a topic familiar to most. Where once people feared, and pulled back from colleagues with a cancer diagnosis we are now more likely to see support for colleagues in practical terms, and through solidarity, awareness campaigns and activities such as charitable fundraising. 

If there’s one thing we are learning from these huge leaps in progress, it’s that disclosure is a key catalyst for change. Employers and HR professionals rightly point out that it can be difficult to understand needs if people do not come forward for assistance. Equally, those of us with lived experience of mental health problems are rightly concerned that it isn’t always safe to disclose. By reducing discrimination and investing in the talent of people with lived experience, while simplifying and celebrating disclosure, businesses can create a ‘disclosure premium’ in which they benefit from talent and staff feel engaged and supported to achieve their best.

Disclosure is a key issue in workplace mental health. We need to enable disclosure by tackling discrimination and by finding new ways to raise awareness of the benefits of disclosure to both individuals and to employers. Disclosure is a key indicator for successful workplace mental health initiatives. Programmes can aim to increase disclosure directly, and successful programmes should enable people with lived experience to see the benefits in coming forward and feel less threatened by discrimination and harassment. 

Our report with employee benefits specialists Unum has many dimensions, not only highlighting the great contributions people living with mental health problems make to the UK economy, but also bringing encouraging new insights into mental health and the workplace. 58% of respondents who had been diagnosed with a mental health problem in the last five years had chosen to disclose it to an employer in this time, with 54% rating the experience as a positive one.

That said, the insights also reveal that we still have a long way to go. 14% of people had a negative experience of workplace disclosure. Of the 45% of respondents with recent mental health problems who chose not to disclose, 45% selected the reason ‘because it is none of my employer’s business’ and 44% reported that for them, ‘fear of being discriminated against or harassed by colleagues’ was a key barrier to opening up. 

The decision to disclose or not is deeply personal. Ultimately, we need to cultivate a society and national workplace culture, where people who experience distress feel able to come forward and access support workplaces provide, and people with ongoing mental health problems are able to equitably enjoy the benefits of work with the adjustments and supports that all disabled people should be able to access in a socially just world.

Once we have taken steps to guarantee the safety and job security of people wanting to disclose, we can begin to celebrate mental health as a business asset – enabling everyone in a company community to thrive and taking steps to recruit and develop talent including people with lived experience of mental ill health, in recognition of the huge contributions they make.