Mental ill health has long been a taboo subject in the UK. So, as well as promoting a culture where mental health is no longer the elephant in the room, how can employers increase awareness of mental health and give employees the tools to support colleagues who are struggling? Stephen Flounders reports and suggests three steps to promoting positive mental health at work.

What is mental health?

Mental health is about how we think, feel and behave. It includes our emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing, and helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices.

Mental health issues can range from common disorders such as anxiety and depression to more severe, albeit less common conditions, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.

Most of us will never have continuously good mental health. Our mindset and how we feel changes depending on what we’re experiencing in life. Sometimes problems in our personal life or the stress we’re experiencing at work can lead to mental ill health.

Understanding mental health at work

For many of us, work is a fundamental part of life. It’s where we spend much of our time, where we see friends every day and where we earn money. Work is generally good for us. It can be stimulating, challenging and fulfilling, and when we enjoy work we tend to feel good about ourselves. It’s a positive cycle: if we feel good in ourselves then we’re more likely to interact well with colleagues and make a valuable contribution to the workplace.

Research carried out by the mental health charity Mind found that 56% of employers said they would like to do more to improve staff wellbeing, but don't feel they have the right training or guidance. Mind’s research also reported that 30% of employees disagreed with the statement “I would feel able to talk openly with my line manager if I was feeling stressed.”

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) states that one in four people in the UK will have a mental health problem at some point. Employers have an important role to play in removing the stigma associated with mental health at work. They should seek to create a culture that promotes open discussion of mental health issues, and a workplace that treats absence from work due to mental ill health in the same way as absence due to physical ill health or injury. See the benefits of managing mental health in our in-depth Mental Health at Work topic.

Failing to address the culture of silence around mental health at work is costly to employers, employees and the economy as a whole. The HSE statistics show that 526,000 workers experienced work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2016/17. Over the same period, 12.5 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety; accounting for 49% of all working days lost due to ill health.

Employers’ duties regarding mental ill health

If an employee’s mental ill health is severe enough to impede efficiency in everyday activities, then they are likely to be covered by the Equality Act 2010.

A person is disabled under the Equality Act if they have a physical or mental impairment that has a “substantial” and “long-term” negative effect on their ability to do normal daily activities.

“Substantial” is more than minor or trivial, eg it takes much longer than it usually would to complete a daily task. “Long-term” means 12 months or more, such as bipolar disorder.

The Equality Act requires employers to make reasonable adjustments to make sure disabled workers aren’t seriously disadvantaged when doing their jobs. In the case of an employee with mental ill health this may mean changes to work patterns to accommodate long-term or fluctuating health conditions and to allow for medical visits or appointing a “buddy” to provide additional support, etc. (See Making Reasonable Adjustments in the Mental Health at Work topic).

Causes of mental ill health at work

For many people, the triggers for mental ill-health relate to factors outside work. This could be a family bereavement, relationship troubles or illness. But work itself can be a cause of mental ill health, and it may also make things worse for those who are experiencing problems outside work.

There are many factors at work that could cause mental ill health, including:

  • high workloads and demands that are becoming unmanageable

  • poorly defined job roles and responsibilities

  • a lack of control over work

  • a poor work–life balance, with long hours spent at work

  • poor relationships with colleagues and managers

  • organisational change

  • job insecurity

  • repetitive and mundane work

  • a lack of career progression opportunities.

Spotting the signs of mental ill health

Common symptoms include:

  • an increase in unexplained absences or sick leave

  • a drop in performance

  • poor time-keeping

  • poor decision-making

  • a lack of energy

  • uncommunicative or distressed behaviour.

The implications of mental ill health in the workplace

A study by the CIPD found that:

  • 37% of workers suffering mental ill health are more likely to get into conflict with colleagues

  • 57% find it harder to juggle multiple tasks

  • 80% find it difficult to concentrate

  • 62% take longer to do tasks

  • 50% are potentially less patient with customers/clients.

Three ways to promote positive mental health

Employers often want to do more to promote positive mental health at work, but don’t feel equipped to do so. Starting conversations with employees about mental health and making changes to develop an open culture need not be difficult. The three steps outlined below provide a useful starting point to raise awareness of mental health at work and create a culture where employees feel able to talk about their mental health.

1. Raise awareness of mental health in the workplace

Improving awareness is a key step to overcoming the stigma often associated with mental health at work. There are several things employers can do to increase awareness, including:

  • empowering someone to act as the organisation’s “mental health champion”

  • consulting with employees and asking them for their input in terms of how to promote mental health at work

  • running campaigns and events

  • providing training such as mental health first aid (see our Employer Factsheet: Mental Health First Aid) to increase awareness, help people notice signs of mental ill health in colleagues and know how to begin to address it

  • having clear leadership in the organisation, along with documented policies and procedures (see our template Mental Health at Work Policy).

2. Tackle the causes of work-related mental ill health

We outlined earlier some of the common factors at work that could cause mental ill health. These, along with other work-related factors, are all things that employers can address. Ways to do this include:

  • monitoring workloads to ensure that people are not taking on too much and that work is distributed evenly

  • ensuring job descriptions are clear, that employees know what is expected of them in their role, and that they have some control over how they work

  • having regular discussions about career progression and planning what steps employees need to take to develop their skills

  • using flexible working as a way of improving employees’ work–life balance.

3. Support employees who are experiencing mental ill health

Most employers will have employees who experience mental ill health, regardless of whether there is a positive and open culture. It’s important for employers to be able to support these employees. Examples of support include:

  • communicating the ways people can ask for help

  • training managers and selected staff so that they know how to respond (see our Line Managers Guide to Mental Health)

  • having clear return-to-work procedures that enable and support employees to return to work when they feel they can

  • keeping in touch with employees while they’re off work to see what you can do to help and support them

  • providing access to external services such as occupational health, employee assistance programmes and counselling

  • having absence management procedures which take account of issues outside of work that may be causing employees to experience mental ill health.

Stephen Flounders is Head of Health and Safety at System Concepts Ltd.

Last reviewed 13 September 2018