9 October 2019

We’re more open about mental health than ever – so why do we hide it at work?

Social media has become a haven for people to open up about their experiences with mental health problems. It is time workplaces followed suit, and offered proper support for the estimated one in four UK people who experience mental illness every year

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Lindsay Harriss

Lindsay Harriss

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Health and wellbeing

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Social media has become a haven for people to open up about their experiences with mental health problems. It is time workplaces followed suit, and offered proper support for the estimated one in four UK people who experience mental illness every year

What links Prince William, pop star Lady Gaga, former Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell and ‘Bake Off’ winner Nadiya Hussain? They’re just some of the high-profile celebrities who’ve recently spoken out about their experiences with mental health conditions, ranging from depression and anxiety to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

With approximately one in four people in the UK experiencing a mental health problem each year, more and more of us are feeling comfortable discussing our issues – either with friends and family, or on social media – yet it remains a taboo topic in many workplaces. Why? Is this reluctance justified? And what can employers do to open up conversations?

A recent poll found that more than half of UK workers who have taken time off work for mental health reasons – such as stress, exhaustion and depression – told their employers they were physically ill instead. Nearly two-thirds (65%) of workers who lied to their boss about their absence said they didn’t think their mental-health problems would be understood or supported, while a further third said they were embarrassed to tell the truth.

Employees’ fear about opening up to their employers or managers about mental-health problems is understandable when you consider that Business in the Community’s (BITC) Mental health at work 2019 report found that 9% of workers who disclosed a mental health issue to their employer said they experienced disciplinary action, demotion or dismissal.

So what’s causing employees’ reluctance to open up about mental ill-health? “There is still a lot of stigma around mental health, and I think a lot of that is down to it not being very well understood,” says Claire Williams, director of people and services at Ciphr. “Even though awareness has increased significantly in recent years, and there is a lot of positive change taking place, some employers still fail to consider mental ill health in the same way they consider other illnesses that are more ‘visible’.

“Unfortunately, this stigma can mean that employees with mental ill health suffer discrimination and a lack of genuine support and empathy, and that is only going to make their recovery harder and longer.”

While stigma from others plays a big role, there may also be an element of self-imposed shame, says Debbie Kleiner, head of workplace happiness at employee benefits and wellbeing experts PES. “Self-stigma is something that is less spoken about, but some people consider themselves ‘weak’ if they admit to not coping. This can also stop people that are feeling bad from seeking help.”

The first step towards a greater understanding of mental health problems might therefore be that such issues have real, solid causes, and are not imagined or a sign of weakness. In fact, BITC’s 2019 report found that the three main causes of work-related poor mental health are too much pressure, high workloads that affect individuals’ ability to take leave, and a lack of support. It also identified that the workers’ mental health was negatively impacted by bad work relationships, including those with managers. Indeed, 2017 research by the University of Manchester emphasised just what a powerful effect a poor relationship with a ‘toxic’ boss can have on an employee’s mental health.

Individuals’ reticence to discuss mental-health issues at work means that it’s up to employers to create organisational cultures where such conversations are encouraged and supported – often with senior leaders, managers and HR teams leading the way. “Employers have to create the right culture to enable employees to open up and talk about mental health issues,” says Kleiner. “In order to break any stigma issues, a great place to start is for the leaders to speak openly themselves about their mental health. You could even include a section in the internal newsletter or on your intranet for employees to share stories.”

There are numerous measures that employers can put in place to promote positive mental health at work (Acas has a useful summary), many of which Ciphr itself has taken in recent months. Williams explains: “This year we invested in training over 10% of our workforce to be mental health first aid champions, alongside two fully qualified mental health first aiders. The goal was to teach people how to spot the signs and symptoms of mental ill health and provide help on a first-aid basis, so that they can listen, reassure and respond, even in a crisis.”

She adds: “We also reviewed our sickness absence policy and as part of that we delivered training to all our line managers, with a specific section focusing on how they can proactively support employees with disabilities, including mental ill health, and on raising awareness around both the types of mental ill health that employees may face and the expectations we have as an employer around this being handled in a fair and supportive way.”

Another significant step employers can take to promote positive mental health in the workplace is to promote and enable a better work–life balance through proactively offering flexible working options, such as remote working and flexible hours; a 2019 survey of 115 companies found that 39% of respondents who worked flexibly had benefited from better mental health.

‘Happy people make for a happy business’

Supporting the mental wellbeing of your people is no longer a ‘nice to do’, it’s a business imperative. The Centre for Mental Health estimates that mental ill-health costs UK employers between £33 billion and £42 billion each year. According to a 2019 survey, every year 25 million work days in the UK are lost to work-related stress, depression or anxiety. Meanwhile, a 2018 OECD study reported that mental ill-health costs the UK as a whole more than £94 billion each year in treatment and support costs, and losses related to lower employment and productivity.

As Kleiner puts it, “happy people make for a happy business,” so if your organisation isn’t talking about and investing in your employees’ mental health, the time to do so is now – before it’s too late.