Breaking the silence on mental health in the workplace
Authors: Stephen Bevan
19 February 2013
Approximately one in six workers in the UK are currently experiencing a mental health condition – most often anxiety, depression and stress. These conditions are a major cause of sickness absence and worklessness, resulting in 600,000 lost workdays each year. However, the biggest economic cost of poor mental health is lost productivity, accounting for more than half of the £26 billion cost of mental health conditions to UK employers annually.
But of course poor mental health has the greatest impact on individual quality of life, particularly for those living with severe, debilitating and stigmatised mental health conditions. Our recent report on schizophrenia and employment highlights that only 8% of people with schizophrenia are employed - against a national employment rate of 71% - despite many being able and motivated to work. With as many as 1 in 100 people living with schizophrenia in the UK, more could be done to improve the quality of life of these people and support their employment decisions.
Looking at the number of workers with ill mental health, the message for I employers is simple: 'good health is good business’. It is estimated that effective management of mental health at work can save around 30% of the costs felt by employers. More recently, plenty of guidance has become available through the government and relevant patient organisations. The mental health workplace adjustments guide from the Department of Health provides information on simple, cost-effective adjustments that employers can apply to the workplace to assist employees with mental health conditions to retain their jobs and to be productive and healthy. These often involve flexibility of working hours and access to helplines - things that all employees could benefit from, and not just those with disclosed mental health problems.
For those requiring more costly interventions, Access to Work grants provide financial support for adjustments such as aids, equipment and support workers that can help individuals with mental health conditions remain in work, and more employers could be taking advantage of these. Unfortunately, there is a relatively low rate of up take of this help by people with a mental illness: between April and June 2012, only 2% of Access to Work grants were received by individuals reporting a mental health problem as their primary condition. By contrast, provision of programmes such as Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) that increase access to services for all people in need of psychological support is not currently meeting demand.
By far the greatest challenge for employers, however, is to overcome the workplace stigma around both common and severe mental health conditions. Whilst interventions available to counteract the effects of ill mental health on work and productivity are becoming well-known, the fear of negative perceptions may prevent people from disclosing their condition and seeking help in the first place, which in turn can delay access to support and lead to worse medium-term outcomes. This becomes particularly salient for individuals in managerial roles, who often have responsibilities for managing the wellbeing of their direct reports, but fail to address the causes of their own stress.
By seeking to create a mentally healthy workplace for all, employers could significantly reduce the impact of work on mental health conditions, improving employee attendance and productivity. The measures to overcome stigma are simple, focusing on raising awareness, educating and informing both workers and managers about mental health and wellbeing. Employers are encouraged to ensure there are pathways available for referral to further mental health support for employees, such as access to occupational health, counselling or Employee Assistance Programs, though day to day management practice is crucial. Managers should practice open and honest conversations with all of their direct reports in order to discuss the required adjustments with both individual employees and also the team, which has a vital role in providing a supportive environment. Occupational health services also have a part to play in health promotion, communication and provision of support in a confidential manner. They should train managers to spot early signs of emerging mental health problems and to address them appropriately.
The above recommendations are valid in relation to all mental health conditions, though workplace adjustment needs may vary depending on the type or severity of the condition. What is true for all is that with a little more support, having a mental health condition need not be a barrier to employment.
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