We need action, not more words on workplace mental health

Written by
Louise Aston

04 Oct 2017

04 Oct 2017 • by Louise Aston

The recent prominence of mental health as a topic of public conversation has pushed it from a niche issue, to one right at the heart of national debate.

We are at a real tipping point moment. Over the past 12 months, a number of prominent public figures have come forward to speak frankly and honestly about their mental health. There has been a groundswell of high profile campaigning on this issue ranging from Heads Together to the City Mental Health Alliance and Business in the Community’s own work with employers. Next Tuesday is World Mental Health Day, an annual awareness campaign to create much needed conversation mental health. 

This year, the initiative will focus on mental health in the workforce. This is fitting and couldn’t come at a better time. As although we are all talking about mental wellbeing with more openness, and businesses are starting to wake up to the importance of mental health in the workforce, there is still a long way to go before people who experience poor mental health at work are treated with the compassion and support they need achieve their full potential at work.

Today, Business in the Community publishes the second annual Mental Health at Work report, based on a YouGov survey of over 3,000 people. Sponsored by Mercer, the report provides a powerful snapshot of the state of mental health in UK workplaces, and provides employers with some indicators of where we are, and where we need to move to when it comes to workplace mental health.

Causes for concern

Our findings provide both news to be celebrated, and cause for concern. We are encouraged to see that attitudes towards mental health in the workplace are improving. 84% of employers now acknowledge that they have a responsibility towards their employees’ mental wellbeing and 91% of managers agree that what they do affects the wellbeing of their staff.  However there remains a pervasive culture of silence with just 13% of employers feeling comfortable disclosing their poor mental health to employers. And perhaps most worryingly, a significant number of people end of facing serious repercussion when they do disclose poor mental health to their bosses.

Our research finds that 15% of employees face dismissal, disciplinary action or demotion after disclosing a mental health issue at work. Scaled up to the general working population, this could mean as many as 1.2 million people negatively affected for speaking out about their mental health – which is a real injustice.

Time for action

We all have to look after our mental health, and this is an issue that won’t simply disappear without action. With 60% of people experiencing poor mental health at work and the cost of mental health estimated at 4.5% of GDP, it’s clear that supporting mental health at work is not just the right thing to do, it’s also good for business. It is now time to challenge the myth that having a mental health issue equates to poor performance and equip managers with the knowledge and training they need to enable people to stay in work.

We are comfortable making adjustments for employees with physical health needs – and rightly so. We would now like mental health treated in this way within businesses. Employers should be able to support employees to stay in work, when appropriate, and make adjustments including support with workload, revised working hours, allowing absence for treatment or opportunities to work from home, depending on the individual’s needs.

We recognise that this issue is challenging and often complex, which is why the report is packed full of case studies, practical guidance and examples to help businesses of all sizes turn their ambition to provide support into practical and effective action that makes a real difference.

And to help businesses get started, we are asking all businesses to take three simple actions:

  1. Talk – Break the culture of silence around mental health by signing up to the Time to Change Employers Pledge
  2. Train – Invest in basic mental health literacy for all employees and mental health first aid training for line managers
  3. Take action – Implement the practical guidance found in Business in the Community/Public Health England mental health employer toolkit and measure their progress using the free self-assessment tool.

Achieving this ambition will require collective effort by employers to end discrimination and deliver the best support. And by doing so we will create workforces that are fairer, happier and more productive, where people can really thrive.

Louise is the wellbeing director at Business in the Community