Tackling mental ill health in the workplace requires changes at the top

The collective effort to improve mental health awareness has gained real momentum in recent years and in the workplace there’s growing recognition that mental wellbeing among employees is good for business. But the way we’re working – the ‘always on’ culture, innovation moving at breakneck speed, and a global workforce operating 24/7 – is creating a mental burden among employees that is generating more mental health challenges. According to the City Mental Health Alliance, 44 percent of employers are seeing an increase in reported mental health concerns. Our own research of international business leaders has also shown that two thirds of them have suffered from mental health conditions. This is not only worrying for the individuals but problematic for the wider business, as culture is driven from the top.

Two thirds (58 percent) of business leaders say that in their position it is hard to talk about mental health, with one in four feeling like they have less support for their own mental health issues since becoming more senior. This shows that business leaders are not immune to mental health challenges, and in some cases, can be especially vulnerable. Pressures that come with the job such as frequent travel and being away from family can be overwhelming. In addition, there’s a worry association between mental health and inability to lead, which makes the topic taboo.

It has been encouraging to see high profile business leaders such as Jayne-Anne Gadhia, CEO of Virgin Money, sharing their struggles with mental health and how they have overcome the situations they’ve faced. However, there is still a way to go encouraging senior executives to open up and disclosure is only one step in tackling the problem.

We need to openly address the obvious link between workplace pressure and mental health, challenge perceptions around mental health and leadership, and ensure that there are a range of services available to support senior people.

Businesses need to put in place the right channels to help people access help sooner, leading to faster recovery and in many instances avoiding the need to take time off work or suffer in silence.

The diversity of the workforce and range of mental health challenges means there is no silver bullet but by providing access to support through the workplace and ensuring that holistic wellbeing and an open culture are a priority both in the boardroom and outside it, we can go some way to removing the stigma attached to mental health.

I have already seen positive change in the City aiming to change the way we approach mental health across the UK, such as businesses signing up to the Time to Change Pledge and initiatives like Heads Together and Mind, backed by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Businesses are making progress, but it remains important for us to continue working together and sharing good practice so people at all levels of business can receive the support they need.


Patrick Watt is the Global Head of Bupa’s Workplace Health & Wellbeing practice and led the development of Bupa’s digital health platform, Bupa Boost. He was also a founding member of the City Mental Health Alliance, has chaired Business in the Community’s sub-committee on mental health and previously served as Board Director of Mindapples.