Recent figures show that only one third of workers who experienced a mental health problem in the last five years felt well-supported by their managers. Line managers routinely overestimate how well their workplace supports staff’s mental health and wellbeing, and less than a fifth of workers with mental health issues said they actually received the kind of support that would help them to remain in work.

But why is this happening? Well, there’s a perception that those with mental health problems won’t be able to cope with workloads and the stresses and strains of the workday, which stops people discussing their health issues with anyone at work. There’s also an erroneous belief that those who suffer with mental health issues are simply using it as an excuse to get off work. There’s also a fear of the gossip, pressure and bad-treatment from colleagues who see an employee with mental health issues as being ‘deadwood’ to a company, all of which culminate to add to the stigma surrounding mental health.

So what can employers do?

One thing employers could do to de-stigmatise mental health issues in the workplace is to enable employees to remain in work with adjustments to their role. This is already a requirement under health and safety law, with employers being subject to a general obligation to take reasonable care for the health and safety of employees in the workplace, which means they have a duty towards people who may have mental health issues.

Employers also have a legal duty not to discriminate because of a person’s disability (and in some cases, mental health issues can constitute a disability). However, it’s clear that there needs to be more flexibility than the law currently has the power to enforce, such as making an alteration to responsibilities where appropriate, or an adjustment to contracted hours or place of work. Both these solutions could go some way to closing the gap between duty and what happens in reality.

And, while there’s no magic software solution or technological shortcut to improving a culture of understanding mental health or tackling mental health issues directly, investing in the right infrastructure could free up HR professionals to innovate and focus their attention to other things, including mental health. Employers ought to start investing in HR services on a larger scale, including the use of software to automate processes, as this could ensure HR professionals have time and capacity to focus their attention on matters as pressing as mental health.

In addition, employers could reduce stigma around mental health by encouraging their employees to prioritise their own mental wellbeing, which means offering more sick days at full pay, preventing burn-out and achieving a healthy work-life balance. This might require better resourcing, a review to the number of sick days issued to staff, and a company culture of taking lunch breaks and leaving the office on time: a pipe dream for many, perhaps, but a major step towards looking after the mental health of all employees.

Open communication is also required, as a lack of communication and understanding is perhaps the largest source of stigma around mental health in the workplace. This might mean holding learning lunches on the subject, organising training from external agencies, making support from mental health professionals available or even subsidising treatment such as counselling services.

Furthermore, much of the stigma around mental health in the workplace could be reduced by enabling mangers to help others. This will require training managers so that they feel confident supporting their team, recognising mental health issues and knowing how to communicate confidently about them. Chris O’Sullivan, head of workplace mental health at the Mental Health Foundation even suggests encouraging those who have relevant experience to use it to support others.

For example, he suggests that it might be valuable for managers to share their lived-experience of dealing with mental health issues. Whether or not this is a solution to de-stigmatising mental health depends on a manager’s willingness to share their experience, (and there certainly shouldn’t be any pressure placed on managers to do so), as respect for their privacy and facilitating the separation of their personal life from their work life is key. Managers should only be encouraged to share their personal experiences if they are genuinely willing to do so.

Finally, employers need to work on the gap between policies regarding mental health and the actual everyday experiences of employees. Can a business truly be said to be aware, understanding and accommodating of mental health issues if their staff are routinely overworked, stressed, under-resourced or over-burdened? Is their sufficient provision for sick days, and would a mental health issue be challenged, sneered at or simply not accepted if someone called in sick for depression, anxiety or a similar mental health issue? 

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