Mental health in the workplace: we need to talk

Evidence shows that work is good for us, but it is still the leading contributor to mental health concerns. What can we do to change that?

In the current climate, with so many employees now working from home or having to adjust their working patterns, mental health is becoming an even bigger concern. 

Our 2019 Health of the Workplace 1 report shows a staggering 92% of employees have reported experiencing a mental health symptom. On top of that, 41% of employees said work had the most negative impact on their mental health.

92% of employees have reported experiencing a mental health symptom. On top of that, 41% of employees said work had the most negative impact on their mental health.

Attitudes are changing… but there’s more to do

The good news is there’s been a positive shift in the attitude towards this issue.

Our report found 74% of UK employees who have experienced a mental health condition said stigma towards mental health in the workplace has reduced over the past year.

However, that doesn’t mean employees still feel able to discuss mental health with their line manager.

So, who do they talk to? Many turn to family and friends, but only 12% looked to a work colleague for support. Less than one in 10 employees spoke to their line manager and only 4% approached Human Resources for help.

That needs to change.

When is it time to talk?

Unlike many physical conditions, symptoms of mental illness can be difficult to recognise, and even more difficult for work colleagues to pick up on.  Mental health clearly means different things to different people. Most of us find that our state of mind can change rapidly – we all have days when we feel stressed or anxious.

But if we can gain an understanding of our own mental wellbeing ‘thermometer’, we’ll be able to recognise when we’re suffering from something more than an ‘off day’. That’s when we know we really do need to talk.

All of this means it’s important to take a personal approach to addressing mental health in the workplace.

Spotting the symptoms

One of the first things we need to learn is how to spot the symptoms and indications that someone could be struggling with a mental health condition. Our research shows the top six reported symptoms are:

  • stress – 71%
  • trouble sleeping – 65%
  • mood swings – 58%
  • back or neck ache – 55%
  • trouble coping mentally – 51%
  • anxiety/palpitations – 49%
 Top 6 reported symptoms: stress – 71% trouble sleeping – 65% mood swings – 58% back or neck ache – 55% trouble coping mentally – 51% anxiety/palpitations – 49%

With such high numbers reporting these symptoms, it’s easy to see how mental health is an ongoing concern for businesses. In fact, around three in five employers (61%) told us they felt stress-related illness will be the biggest occupational health concern this year.

Recognising the issues

So, how can we improve personal awareness of mental wellbeing?  Providing employees with access to learning on mindfulness and personal resilience is a great way to start. This could be done through workshops, apps or online training modules.

Access is only the first step, though. It’s important for employers to make sure their workforce know about these tools and encourage people to use them.

But training is only one part of the solution. Companies need to understand and address the individual needs of their workforce.

Starting the conversation

Conversations about mental health are unlikely to arise unprompted. It often takes an intuitive colleague or manager to set the ball rolling.  Not all of us have the necessary life experience or natural ability to recognise emotional upset in colleagues.  We may view someone’s outburst, or negativity, as simply disruptive, rather than a symptom of emotional upset that could be alleviated with our support.

This doesn’t always need a great deal of our time or complex clinical intervention – a quick chat and a sympathetic ear might be all that’s required. And if we can go a step further and provide team-by-team training on mental wellbeing, the members of each team will learn to recognise symptoms of anxiety or low mood in friends and colleagues. From here, they’re not far from developing comprehensive and effective mental wellbeing strategies.

Of course, it’s also important to encourage an employee struggling with their mental health to speak to their doctor, who can help them find an appropriate treatment pathway.

Trust and confidentiality

While mental health is now being talked about much more openly in society, but is this translating to the workplace? While the UK population is starting to make more use of mental health services, employees are still nervous admitting to experiencing a mental health issue may affect their career progression. We need to overcome that.

In some companies, there’s a persistent misconception that people experiencing mental illness are less likely to recover completely – and fully meet the demands of their role – than those suffering from a physical illness. In reality, one in four of us will experience an episode of mental illness in our lives, from which most will make a full recovery.  So, while we’ve made great steps in being more open about mental illness within our communities, we’re still apprehensive about seeking appropriate help and support at work.

Awareness and openness about mental health is the start of the journey.  If we want employees to be open about their mental wellbeing, there needs to be a culture of respect, trust confidentiality.  Employees talking to line managers or colleagues about their mental wellbeing need to be reassured that their conversations will be treated with confidentiality and impartiality. Mental health first aiders, wellbeing champions and mental health allies all provide essential avenues for employees to discuss their mental wellbeing and access impartial support. 

A two-pronged approach

It takes two people to engage in any conversation.  When it comes to talking about our mental health, we need to know when we’ve tipped from ‘just an off day’ to ‘I need to talk to someone about how I’m feeling’. 

With improved self-awareness of our mental wellbeing thermometer, we’re more likely to seek support from colleagues and line managers before our mental health impacts on relationships and performance. 

At the same time, employers, managers and colleagues need to create an environment of trust and confidentiality, implemented through a company policy.

If we can get both of these developments to work in tandem, we can start the conversations we need to reduce the impact of presenteeism or absenteeism… on individuals, teams and the organisation as a whole.

Explore Business perspectives

Your hub for expert insight and knowledge

Health & Wellbeing articles

Business perspectives articles