Mental health in the workplace – time to change needed more than ever

Today, the CIPD released a new report focussing on mental health in the workplace which highlighted some concerning statistics:

  • 31% of employees responded that they have experienced mental health problems while in employment
  • 50% of those who described their mental health as poor have taken time off work for this reason
  • Those who do attend work when experiencing poor mental health reported that their condition affected their work in a number of ways, e.g. difficulties in concentrating, taking longer to perform tasks, and having difficulties in making decisions.

My first reaction on hearing this was, “Is this as bad as it sounds?”  I was hoping that the increase in reported mental health problems at work had occurred as a result in initiatives such as Time to Change, which are aiming to promote the discussion and disclosure of mental health issues at work to reduce the stigma and discrimination associated with it.  In fact, recent research evaluating Time to Change has indicated that stigma and discrimination at work has reduced.  Additionally, awareness about the importance of discussing and combatting stigma in mental health has been raised both in parliament and by royalty, highlighting that the more we speak about mental health, the greater the chance that discrimination will reduce, and cultures will become more supportive of such issues.

However, this initial optimistic outlook was quashed slightly, when later statistics highlighted that:

  • Only 46% of respondents reported that their organisation support employees who experience mental health problems well, or very well
  • 28% didn’t know how well their employer supports people who experience mental health problems
  • Only 38% believe their organisation has an inclusive environment in which staff are encouraged to talk openly about their mental health problems, with 48% reporting they didn’t feel there was an inclusive climate
  • Only 44% would feel confident enough to disclose unmanageable stress or mental health problems to their current employer or manager.

So what is going wrong?

The message of ‘good health is good for business’ still needs to be sent to employers.  Effective management of mental health in the workplace can save around 30% of costs felt by employers.  Line managers have a really important role to play in creating an environment where employees feel safe to disclose with the knowledge that the organisation will do something to help them.  Managers need to have a positive employment relationship where open and honest conversations can be had to discuss any required adjustments and provide that supportive environment.  We are not calling for line managers to become doctors and know the signs and symptoms of all mental health conditions, but we are calling for them to be aware of how their employees are feeling and behaving in the workplace and are able to refer them to necessary help.

This may involve some line management training (not all managers are recruited for their management skills).  However, the report mentions that line management training for managing and supporting people with mental health problems only occurred in 10% of cases, even though line managers do have a pivotal role in shaping an employee’s experience of work and promoting their wellbeing.  As a result, many line managers may lack the skills or abilities to have the appropriate conversations with employees – something that must be changed.

Adjustments to the workplace (and workload) of employees can be implemented to help an employee with mental health conditions at work.  The mental health workplace adjustment guide provides examples on simple and cost-effective measures that can be put in place, including: adjusting working hours and patterns, making changes to the employees physical environment, providing workload support and improving support from others.  Access to work can also provide grants for interventions that may be more costly for organisations, and employers must recognise that this is applicable for mental as well as physical health conditions.

Clearly, more work needs to be done to overcome workplace discrimination and stigma around mental health conditions.  Whilst interventions (such as Employee Assistance Programmes) are becoming more widespread, there are still concerns regarding the negative perception of having to use such a service, which may delay access to support, which then only risks worse outcomes in the medium to long-term.

Having a mental health condition doesn’t have to have implications for employment, yet it is clear that it still does.  Even with the greater awareness that we now have about the implications of mental health at work for both employees and the organisation, more work still needs to be done.  With more organisational support, mental health does not need to be a barrier to employment.

It is clear that ‘Time to Change’ is now more necessary than ever.