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Karen Steadman
Senior Researcher
Karen Steadman

Is it time your business had a ‘Big Conversation’ about mental health?

Authors: Karen Steadman

01 April 2014

This morning (1 April 2014) saw the launch of ‘Mental Health: We’re Ready to Talk’ , calling on businesses to start talking about and taking action on mental health at work. It’s a call that’s been made before, but not usually by business. Launched as part of their ‘Responsible Business Week’ (31 March to 4 April), Business in the Community (BITC), a business led charity, has developed a report designed specifically to speak about the mental health issues that concern businesses today. Developed in association with Mind, with research support from CIPD and The Work Foundation, ‘Mental Health: We’re Ready to Talk’ makes the business priority for addressing mental health as a workplace issue clear – highlighting mental health related presenteeism and stigma as crucial.

It is absolutely fantastic to see business leadership on mental health as a work issue - from the front line to the boardroom, it simply has to be on the agenda. Indeed, more and more businesses are stepping up and taking notice of this call, but there are many employers who still do not see it as their concern. This report makes it clear that ignoring mental health issues and hoping they will go away is not an option.

This report not only makes the case for action both in terms of the business case and for employee health and well-being, but also calls on employers to make changes, including making the organisational Time to Change pledge – something The Work Foundation supports, and are working on ourselves.

The featured case studies in the report will hopefully give employers some advice on how they might move the agenda forward in their own organisation. These stories from business leaders about their own experience of poor mental health, or how they have made beneficial changes in their organisations are crucial for showing others how it might and can be done. Indeed, one of the reasons we need employers to talk about mental health more is to encourage sharing of best practice around prevention of poor health, promotion of well-being, and management of mental health conditions at work.

Many employers and managers want to support employee mental health, but don’t know how to go about it- whether they feel they haven’t got the support to do it, or fear they don’t know what they’re doing and could end up making things worse. Earlier this month The Work Foundation held a mental health and work roundtable for our employer partners. Through discussing the issues and the sharing of good practice and advice, we identified several challenges for employers which make addressing mental health at work more difficult.

An often raised issue is that of the ‘line manager squeeze’. With line managers increasingly looked on to provide personal as well as professional support, is it time to think more how they might be better supported? In terms of mental health specifically – how can we incentivise and reward managers to take a lead on their teams’ mental health, given the many competing demands on their time? Alongside this we must also think about how this pressure might affect line manager’s mental health – who supports the supporters?

Another issue is the relationship between performance management and poor mental health – how do we manage the situation where managing a performance issue starts to have an adverse impact on someone’s mental health? Within this is the very real, and the often uncomfortable to discuss concern that an employee is taking time off for a mental health issue, though this actually might not be the true problem. This does not mean the absence is illegitimate in its basis – it more often than not means that there are other work factors, poor job quality or stress (e.g. around relationships, management, workload, communications etc.) that are driving an individual away. How does an employer address this when the individual has said they have mental ill health, and they may not want to return to the job as it is?
These are just some of the many mental health related issues that employers want to talk about. We hope that one day they can.

Support for employers and employees on mental health in the work is also available from the Mental Health Support Service, run by Remploy, through Access to Work funding. They provide guidance and support for employers and employees managing a mental health condition at work.
Tel: 0845 146 0501 Email: