Managing mental health at work

Problems with wellbeing or mental health do not need to limit your career. Here's some advice for employees and employers.

Last Updated: 20 Aug 2020

Yes, this is an article about mental health, and no the picture above isn’t of someone clutching their head. Unfortunately, mental health (generally preferred over ‘mental illness’) remains surrounded in cliché. It makes it difficult to write about from a distance, let alone discuss on a personal level with colleagues or employers.

The reality though is that many people find themselves having to decide whether to do just that. According to the government-commissioned Thriving at Work report, 15% of us experience symptoms of mental heath problems at work, while 300,000 people leave work every year as a result of them. The overall cost to employers is between £33bn and £42bn a year.

Mental health problems vary widely in terms of both conditions and individuals’ experiences of them, but one thing they all have in common is that you can’t just leave them at home when you come to work in the morning.

Work can trigger (or in some cases help with) mental health problems, which in turn can affect performance. ‘Coming out’ about it is therefore a very difficult decision.

‘Lots of people worry about the impact disclosing a mental health problem will have on their career prospects,’ says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at mental health charity Mind. Unfortunately, Mamo still hears from people who’ve been bullied, demoted or even pushed out over their mental health, but believes things are improving.

More and more employers are realising that it makes good business sense to be disability friendly, rather than suffering lost productivity from absenteeism, presenteeism and needlessly losing valuable staff. Indeed, there are now strong legal protections under the Equality Act for people whose conditions are recognised as disabilities.

Know yourself

Therein lies an important problem, however. Like mental health, disability is a word that puts some people off. Though Mamo advises those concerned about their mental health to go to the GP (especially if you want to invoke the protections of the Equality Act), she admits there are plenty who won’t go or even refuse to accept a diagnosis because of the enduring stigma. They don’t see themselves as ‘mentally ill’.

It can be difficult after all to know whether you’re just having a hard time at the moment or experiencing symptoms of something more serious. Jules Lockett, a practice manager at the London Ambulance Service, spoke recently of her own struggles with mental health following major surgery. ‘I just thought I was having a moment,’ she says. ‘I was stressed, but now we don’t have the word stressed, we say we’re "too busy".’

The bottom line is that if it feels like a problem to you, then it is a problem, whether it’s about mental health or wellbeing.

Knowing your surroundings

Recognising there’s an issue is half the battle, but it still doesn’t make it easier to know whether to tell your boss about it. Taking a good, hard look around you could be the best place to start. ‘The culture of your workplace is likely to have a massive impact on how comfortable you feel in coming forward. If you’ve seen colleagues treated badly upon admitting that they’re struggling with their mental health, you’re unlikely to put your head above the parapet,’ says Mamo.

The best workplaces are characterised, Lockett adds, by openness: ‘making sure people do feel comfortable and safe and able to share how they’re feeling, and that it’s not a taboo subject.’ If you’re not sure, ask yourself what would happen if someone was showing visible signs of distress and left their desk to make a cup of tea. Would anyone follow them and ask if they wanted to talk about it, or would you all keep your heads down?

Ultimately, it’s impossible to know how your employer or colleagues will react when you tell them something personal about yourself. If you do decide to tell them, keeping it businesslike and knowing beforehand what you want to discuss around reasonable adjustments can help, but no one should feel pressured to tell anyone.

Similarly, even if you decide not to tell your boss, it’s important to remember that this doesn’t mean you can’t tell anyone at all - peer support and external advice may be available. If nothing else it will help to realise you're not alone. ‘It is okay to have those feelings, it’s human,’ Lockett says. ‘Sometimes people just need to know that other people are going through the same things they are.’

Managing mental health at work: an employer's perspective

A lot of managers are convinced of the business, moral and legal cases for being disability-friendly, but may not have much experience of managing employees with mental health issues. Indeed, they may fear treading on egg shells.

‘Although it can be a daunting responsibility, research shows culture change is driven by line managers,’ says Barbara Harvey, mental health executive sponsor at Accenture. ‘By tackling the "last taboo" of mental health, reducing stigma, encouraging openness and improving communication, line managers can create a more inclusive environment for everyone, not just those directly affected by mental health conditions.’

Harvey recommends a three-pronged approach: 

  • Training and support (at Accenture this includes a 24 hour advice line for case-specific guidance, but there are free resources for smaller employers  at Mind and other elsewhere)
  • Encouraging peer-led communities , particularly by involving senior managers as sponsors or ‘allies’
  • Targets – an oldie but a goodie. By putting mental health awareness targets in place, you can keep mental health on the agenda throughout the organisation. 

‘At work, mental health is often the elephant in the room, not talked about for fear of how it might affect an individual’s professional success.  In fact, a recent report by the MHF and Unum revealed that 44% of respondents with mental health problems who chose not to disclose them in the workplace feared discrimination from colleagues,’ says Harvey.

‘By increasing knowledge, awareness and support around mental health issues, companies can play a key role in challenging that stigma and helping to dispel some of the myths that still prevail.’

This article has been updated. It was originally published in June 2016. 


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