Time to start a new culture to tackle stigma on mental wellbeing issues in the workplace

mental wellbeing at workAs a recent Workplace Insight story reported, UK workers are still uncomfortable about having honest conversations at work, with nearly two thirds (61 percent) feel they keep an aspect of their lives hidden in the workplace. Family difficulties (46 percent) was the most likely hidden issue at work, followed by mental health (31 percent). Talking about mental wellbeing worries to employers can be very distressing for individuals and not only make a person’s condition worse, but also, leave their career in a worse place according to our latest thought leadership research report: Mind Culture. Our latest research study shows that more than half (51 percent) of survey respondents who had confided in their line manager about a mental health issue did not receive any extra support. Even worse, 8 percent respondents faced negative consequences, including being sacked or forced out, demoted or subjected to disciplinary action.

I’m emphatic on what a critical business issue mental wellbeing in the workplace is, and how it cannot be ignored anymore. Stigma about mental health and what it may signify about the individual and their worth in the workplace continues to mean that people suffer in silence.

Mental health costs the UK £70 billion per year, equivalent to 4.5% of our GDP, and the cost to employers is thought to be more than £26 billion a year.  With mental ill health being the leading case of sickness absence in the UK, I wonder why we are not doing more to bridge the gap and stop talking about the importance of good mental health at work and to start acting.

Essentially, as empowering or brave a  few line managers conversations are, having a complete look at the culture of the workplace is the thing that will change attitudes for this everyday normal condition. Campaigns such as Time to Change (Mind, Rethink Mental Illness, 2017) and most recently Heads Together (Heads Together, 2017), supported by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, are aimed at reducing stigma and opening the conversation about mental health, leading to the issue receiving more media attention. But in the world of work stigma is still preventing people from getting help.

In our study, we asked what issues employees would be comfortable discussing. Physical health and gender were among the more comfortable issues with mental health conditions and sexual orientation the least comfortable issues, with only 56% of respondents indicating they would be comfortable discussing these subjects. The younger age brackets were less comfortable discussing mental health issues than the older age brackets, which comes as a surprise.

What’s more, we are seeing a huge disconnect between what support employers think they offer and what staff recognise as support. In our report, no clear support service for managers was identified; however, 87% thought they managed the situation well with 68% reporting that they offered support with workload, a far higher percentage than indicated by respondents reporting what help or adjustments were offered. More than half (51%) of respondents surveyed said they when they confided in their line manager about a mental health issue they did not receive any extra support. Even worse, 8% respondents faced negative consequences, including being sacked or forced out, demoted or subjected to disciplinary action.

The research is shocking, but is it all lack of priority and care? I don’t think so. Managers frequently want to help but they just don’t know the best way to go about it. Organisations can invest in basic mental health literacy for all employees and first aid training in mental health to support line manager capability.

There is help and advice out there such as Business in the Community’s mental health toolkit but having the time and confidence to talk is the first step. It’s about tooling up and showing up for your staff. Also, following in the footsteps of progressive workplace institutions such as Brentwood Community Print, a social enterprise print and graphic design business in Essex that reinvests all profits from the business in their stakeholders who are all adults in recovery from mental health illnesses.

Director Audrey Clark said: “We operate an open-door policy and everyone knows that if there is an issue that day affecting their mental health, they will be listened to straight away. That person would not be sent home but encouraged to focus on work whilst being supported by their peers. The reason we take this approach is firstly to show that our team are valued as individuals and secondly, by remaining in work they learn how to develop strategies to cope with the symptoms of their illness and be able to remain in work thus avoiding long term sickness leave and possibly isolation that can lead to a deterioration in mental health.”

In London, The Lion’s Barber Collective have been working together with Bluebeards Revenge male grooming range to use the opportunity of a regular haircut to start conversations about mental health. They organise a training programme teaching barbers to ‘recognise, talk, listen and advise’ clients and work with the Samaritans charity signposting the services they offer to clients in need. The fact that it is non-clinical, combined with the fact a barber is often not in the clients’ social circle means that there is no fear of being diagnosed, assessed or anything they do share being disclosed to one of their friends or family. The result is they are having an enormous impact with men who struggle to reach out to traditional mental health services:Founder Tom Chapman said: “I don’t believe that barbers are able to take over from mental health professionals, nor do they want to, however I do believe that we could bridge the gap between the community and the professionals.”


Kate Cooper is Head of Research, Policy and Standards of the Institute of Leadership & Management