There are more people at work with mental health conditions than ever before. In recent years, the proportion of workers that can expect to experience some form of mental health problem during their working lives has increased markedly. Mental health problems are a leading cause of illness and disability. Mental ill-health can have a significant impact in the workplace, whether a result of acute and severe ill-health, or milder ill-health.
Untreated mental health can lead to absenteeism (including due to poorer physical health), decreased work performance, negative attitude and behaviour, and/or poor working relationships with colleagues and clients. There are also several important intersections to this issue. For example, with women in full-time employment being twice as likely to have a common mental health problem compared to a full-time employed man. As such, wellbeing and mental health might also be considered through the lens of workplace diversity, and through organisational culture, as described below.
The Mental Health Foundation estimates that better mental health support in the workplace would save UK businesses up to £8 billion per year. Others, including the Centre for Mental Health estimate costs to be several times higher. Additionally, Deloitte's analysis of investments made in improving mental health show a consistently positive return on investment. There is a clear business case for organisations to equip themselves with a holistic approach to mental health in the workplace. Well managed businesses are likely to understand the importance of promoting awareness and of employing tools and processes to identify, address and prevent poor mental health caused or worsened by work.
The "invisibility" of poor mental health and illness makes it difficult for people to identify it in themselves and in others. Because mental health tends to be a sensitive and intimate topic, people affected are unlikely to feel confident to be forthcoming about their situation. Such discomfort in communication can strain the employee-manager relationship. Less than half of employees say they feel able to speak openly about stress with their line manager. One in four people even consider resigning due to stress. However, despite a push for transparency, in 15% of cases where the employee disclosed a mental health issue to a line manager, the employee became subject to disciplinary procedures, dismissal or demotion.
Mental illness is frequently viewed as a personal failure by the person affected, and this sentiment can be exacerbated by an unsupportive workplace culture. Without proper training and education on mental health, colleagues may be uncomfortable working with someone mentally unwell. Those affected may also hesitate to be open about mental health due to fear stemmed from a lack of confidence in one's own ability, and in how others perceived that ability. Employees may feel they need to conceal mental illness until they can prove themselves capable to offset the illness.
In addition to investment on employee mental health within the workplace, hiring practices can also reflect an organisation's commitment to a positive approach to this issue. Finding or returning to work and retaining a job after treatment for mental illness is often a challenge for those affected. This barrier can be attributed to the stigma surrounding mental health in the workers. Some employers may believe those with poor mental health will be bad workers, and as such, employers are more likely to ask for 'further information' when hiring. Additionally, about 50% of employers would not wish to employ a person with a psychiatric diagnosis. While there are more people at work with mental health conditions than ever before, 300,000 people with a long term mental health problem lose their jobs each year, and at a much higher rate than those with physical health conditions.
Solutions to create mental health positivity in the workplace depend on organisational environment and culture, training and education, and practical strategies and approaches to the problem. The Stevenson / Farmer review of mental health and employers suggests implementation of 'mental health core standards' which include:
- Produce, implement and communicate a mental health at work plan
- Develop mental health awareness among employees
- Encourage open conversations about mental health and the support available when employees are struggling
- Provide employees with good working conditions and ensure they have a healthy work life balance and opportunities for development
- Promote effective people management through line managers and supervisors
- Routinely monitor employee mental health and wellbeing
The report also outlines a series of more ambitious 'enhanced' standards for employers who can and should do more
to lead the way, building on the mental health core standards these are as follows:
- Increase transparency and accountability through internal and external reporting
- Demonstrate accountability
- Improve the disclosure process
- Ensure provision of tailored in-house mental health support and signposting to clinical help
Similarly, the Time to Change Employer Pledge seeks to encourage best practices and suggests a framework through which businesses and other organisations can identify and adopt better and best practices. The pledge is dedicated to seven principles which organisations have the ability to adapt them to their workplace:
- Demonstrate senior-level buy-in
- Demonstrate accountability and recruit Employee Champions
- Raise awareness about mental health
- Policies to address mental health problems in the workplace
- Ask your employees to share their personal experiences of mental health problems
- Equip managers to have conversations about mental health
- Provide information about mental health and signpost to support services