Why employers need to talk about mental health

Benedetta Doro reports on why it is good for both employers and employees to tackle mental health in the workplace on an ongoing basis.

person with anxiety disorder mental health illness, headache and migraine sitting on laptop computer desk


One in four people will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year in England, whilst one in six people report experiencing a common mental health problem, according to the charity Mind.

Furthermore, work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 44% of work-related ill health and 54% of working days lost in 2018/19, according to the Health and Safety Executive. Following a workingmums.co.uk survey 65% of  respondents said that their mental health have deteriorated due to Covid-19. Also, 1.1m people in the UK are estimated to have Long Covid which can contribute to poor mental health.

The Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development warns that the pandemic’s negative impact on workers’ mental health could last for many months or even years.

More than ever before, there is an increasing necessity to tackle mental health in the workplace. Whether a condition is related to their job or not, it is important that employers will take the necessary steps to support workers’ wellbeing.

Deborah Watson, founder of the non-profit organisation Wednesday’s Child, says: “One of the really important things is to make sure that workers are getting some training and awareness in how can you spot signs in an employee […] training can also make it easier for an employee to come and have a conversation confidentially if they are struggling, whether that’s themselves or a member of their family.” She adds: “When we bottle up issues around mental health that’s when the illness really does start to take hold.”

Watson’s organisation supports people who are experiencing eating disorders directly, or those people who are trying to help someone in their life who is battling an eating disorder. It does so in a variety of ways: it offers occupational therapists, family therapists and nutritionists. The goal is to support anyone at whatever stage of their recovery journey.

The organisation also collaborates with employers to help them provide adequate support around mental health and to raise awareness on these illnesses.

What can employers do to support workers?

Understanding mental health conditions and educating the workforce about them is one of the first concrete steps employers can take. Letting employees know that they are supported and understood is a key contributor to their wellbeing.

For Watson it is about making people aware that they can have that conversation, but also that “we’re very much a kind of nation that almost honours productivity, but we need to remember that people go through a lot of stresses and it is really important that people take their breaks, their holidays, and have time with their family”.

Sharing resources and encouraging employees to use them will help decrease the stigma around illnesses and normalise the use of these services, she says. For this reason, communication between employers and employees is very important and offering regular check-ins with managers can help both parties.

On the one hand, employees can feel heard and do not have to struggle in silence. On the other hand, employers can gain a better understanding from workers about whether the measures taken are working and what else they need to do. Of course, adequate training needs to be put in place for managers, as well as offering them support.

However, communication goes beyond check-ins and could be as simple as having open and clear working policies, particularly at time when those guidelines are often changing due to the pandemic. Since the outbreak, employees who have felt their managers are not good at communicating have been 23% more likely than others to experience mental health declines, a study from he Harvard Business Review with Qualtrics and SAP revealed.

Better communication could help reduce stress due to uncertainty in the workplace. Also, removing other stress-inducing scenarios can help employees, such as setting expectations about workloads, prioritising what must get done and acknowledging what tasks do not necessarily need to be carried out.

In addition, offering flexible working options can help many employees who might have to attend medical appointments or need to take some breaks during the day to recharge or maybe need to start the day later or end it earlier. It is important to move away from the assumption that asking for flexibility is a sign of lack of commitment or lower working standards when it can help more employees thrive and will level the field for those who are struggling with standard working practices.

Why is it important to check on workers’ mental health?

Only 19% of the workingmums.co.uk survey respondents said their employer had helped them with their mental health during the pandemic, compared to 50% who said they didn’t help. Watson says that some of the employers she has worked with have tried really hard and have a great approach to mental health, but there are “others that aren’t really doing enough on a day-to-day basis or are making it quite difficult for people to have those conversations”.

Because mental health illnesses are not visible they can be more difficult to spot or employees might be able to hide them better, but that does not mean that the company should not be proactive in supporting their employees’ wellbeing.

Firstly, it is necessary that employers recognise mental health-related illnesses on the same level as physical ones. Then, measures of support need to be put into place both in the short and long term.

Cara Lisette was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2015 and has a previous history of anorexia. She is now a nurse and is currently doing an additional course to qualify as a therapist. In her case, Lisette is happy with her workplace as she considers her employers very supportive regarding her mental health.

However, even with support some bumps can be encountered on the road to recovery and they can impact employees’ work too.

Cara says: “Most recently I had to take just over six months off sick to enter a day patient programme for my eating disorder, and I then returned part time for six months. I have also had to take some time out for various appointments.”

Generally, due to the stigma and lack of understanding around mental health conditions, many workers choose not disclose their condition.

“Create an open culture where people feel comfortable to discuss their mental health, allow reasonable adjustments and provide various mediums to promote staff wellbeing,” says Cara.

Watson suggests “having a mental health champion or ambassador who can be looking at how the business is running and putting forward ideas as to ways that people can feel more supported”.

Providing and encouraging the right support can have many benefits, including more satisfied staff members who are also able to provide higher quality work and fewer employees needing to take time off due to burn-out.

Indeed, Cara explains: “Sickness is likely to be less if staff are being well supported to manage their mental health and wellbeing. They will feel like they are safe and secure in their jobs to discuss their mental health and to seek professional support if needed. Staff are likely to be happier in their jobs and less stressed outside of work.”

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