Last reviewed 12 July 2017

Having a healthy workforce is a significant asset for companies. Healthy people means fewer absences, less time off for medical appointments, and probably a more productive day at work. Conversely, workers who are not well can potentially cost a business money through time off and low efficiency. Gudrun Limbrick looks at raising managerial awareness of mental health.

The impacts of poor health are often not tangible. Illness in a team, and absenteeism, can impact on team morale and cohesiveness and, of course, some illnesses can be less tangible than others. While a broken leg is immediately apparent and understood, for example, stress can be invisible to most and very poorly understood. The impacts of mental health problems can be just as significant as those for physical ill health. In fact, mental ill health is the leading cause of sickness absence in the UK, costing an average of £1035 per employee per year.

Mental health problems cover a range of different issues. The most common problems are depression and anxiety but they can also cover stress, phobias and panic attacks, for example. Less common conditions such as bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia are usually classed as mental illnesses rather than mental health problems although their impact on mental health is indisputable.

A recent report Mental Health at Work published by Business in the Community (BITC) (the responsible business network headed by the Prince of Wales) examined the experiences of employers and employees around mental health issues. Using information from nearly 20,000 respondents, the research found that more than three quarters of workers had experienced some form of mental health issue.

Fifty-seven per cent of respondents reported having experienced psychological symptoms such as depression or anxiety; 55% behavioural symptoms such as appetite changes, irritability, procrastination and 53% physical symptoms such as raised blood pressure, or headaches. Twenty-nine per cent of respondents had received a formal diagnosis of a mental health problem. The report shows that mental health problems were more often reported by younger respondents (18 to 29-year-olds) than older respondents. For example, 16% of 18 to 29-year-olds described their current mental health as poor or very poor while the proportion of 50 to 59-year-olds was just 8%.

While the proportion of respondents reporting poor mental health is perhaps shocking, what is of particular concern are the research findings relating to how many of those people shared information about their problems with their employers. If we can assume that the proportion of employees, for example, with a broken arm, or bronchitis, who told their employers about it would be something close to 100%, the figures relating to mental health are very different. Only 11% of respondents discussed a recent mental health problem with their line manager. Half of employees said that they would not discuss mental health with their line manager. Fewer than 2% of employees reported having gone to HR for help.

It is, of course, entirely possible that an employee would not tell their employer anything if they would help it. That bronchitis or broken arm is only mentioned to the line manager because it is impossible to hide and if we could give our employers a clear message that we were always healthy, well and fit for work, we would do so to give the impression that we are always working at full efficiency, and we are ready for new challenges. Showing a weakness of any variety, be it physical or mental, could, in the eyes of the employer, leave us open to be passed over for promotion or first on the list to go when times are hard.

However, the research report suggests that something more pernicious may be afoot. The research found that 9% of employees who experienced symptoms of poor mental health experienced disciplinary action. This is a very worrying statistic which undoubtedly needs further investigation as any disciplinary action directly related to the mental health of the individual employee, could be an illegal act.

Other respondents felt that there was no point in reporting their mental health problems. Twenty per cent of employees say nothing was changed when they reported experiencing symptoms of poor mental health. It seems that there is certainly some issue with communication on this point. In the research, 49% of managers said they offered help with an employee’s workload who had reported mental health problem. However, only 7% of employees say they had received such help. Is it possible that the difficulties of talking about mental health issues mean that employees may not be adequately vocalising what they need, and employers may not be adequately understanding what employees need and what they can offer to help?

Of course, there remains a stigma about mental health issues — mad and crazy remain very common terms of abuse, or ways of describing irrational or unexpected behaviours, whereas terms of abuse relating to many physical ailments, such as cripple and spastic, have left our general vocabulary of abusive terms. Thirty-five per cent of employees did not approach anyone, within or outside of work, for support the last time they experienced poor mental health.

In an ideal world, employers need to know about an employee’s current mental health issues so that they can help — by looking at flexibility in the workload, arranging time off, ensuring that the employee can still use machinery while on certain medications and so forth — as should be the case with any illness. But there is also an additional factor employers need to be aware of when their own work practices are impacting on mental health. Sixty-two per cent of employees experiencing symptoms of poor mental health reported that it was due to work or that work was a contributing factor. In the month prior to the survey, almost a quarter of all of respondents experienced symptoms of poor mental health where work was a contributing factor.

So how can employers ensure that their employees feel able to talk to them about their mental health problems, diagnosis or concerns? BITC, following on from this research, has boiled down what employers need to do to three Ts — talk, train and take action.

BITC is calling on every employer to sign the “Time to Change” pledge. This involves designing an action plan to enable and encourage employees to talk about mental health in an effort to reduce the stigma it carries and develop an understanding about what mental health is and how it should be treated in the workplace. This is the “talk” element of the strategy.

The second element is based on training. Just 22% of managers in the research said that they had received mental health training. Mental health is a complex issue and it is not always easy to know what are the best steps to take to help someone in need. Even terminology can be tricky and, unless we understand what words to use, we struggle to talk about it effectively. Thus, supporting managers by providing quality training is essential.

The third step is to take action which BITC defines as closing the gap between what employees need in terms of support and what an organisation is offering. By this, an employee has a greater chance of feeling confident enough to talk to their employer and to ask for the support they need.

It is interesting that mental health is an area in which we feel we are doing better than we are. Sixty per cent of board members in the survey felt that their organisation supported mental health at work. This belief was overturned by the responses from employees. However, the estimated cost of mental health problems — more than £1000 per employee per year — suggests that there is much to be gained, from bringing the reality up to the level of the board members’ perception.