In a time where employee wellbeing is seemingly placed at the heart of a wide range of business decisions, from office layout to opting for ergonomic furniture and even exercise desks, it may come as a shock to discover that the British workforce has far from a clean bill of health when it comes to mental wellbeing.
According to new research by charity Business in the Community (BiTC), in a survey of over 3,000 people an overwhelming 60% of British workers have experienced work-related mental health issues in the past year.
While improving and maintaining employees’ physical wellbeing has risen to the top of many employers’ agendas, with gym memberships, cycle to work schemes and access to free fruit becoming common employee benefits, this research reveals that employees’ mental wellbeing is still an issue that is yet to be addressed. This argument is evidenced in BiTC’s further findings that, despite 84% of employers acknowledging responsibility towards mental wellbeing, less than a quarter (24%) had actually received training for managing and supporting people with mental health problems.
While there’s no doubting the need for businesses to invest in both mental and physical wellbeing, mental health illness is still widely viewed as a taboo, creating barriers for both employers and employees and making it difficult for effective mental wellbeing procedures to be brought into effect. Communication is one of the biggest stumbling blocks according to the BiTC report. Of the 3,000 people surveyed, 53% said that they would not feel comfortable talking about mental health at work, as they are scared of the repercussions. For employees, the threat of facing discrimination or job insecurity, as a result of disclosing any mental health issues at work leaves many feeling they have no option other than to suffer in silence.
With this in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising the BiTC found that over half (58%) of the employees surveyed reported that they do not feel their line manager is genuinely concerned about their wellbeing, and would rather choose to not involve anyone at all. Just 13% felt able to disclose a mental health issue to their manager. However, of those who did disclose a mental health issue, 15% were subjected to disciplinary procedures, demotion or dismissal (9% in 2016).
This is a potent example of why a pervasive culture of silence remains entrenched in the workplace.
Ensuring managers are adequately trained to support employees struggling with mental health problems is essential. However, before businesses can reach this stage, steps must be taken to deconstruct the stigma attached to mental illness and destroy company cultures that promote practices which have damaging effects on mental wellbeing. The longer the silence around mental health continues, the longer the stigma will remain.
Louise Aston, wellbeing director at BiTC, emphasises the need for employers to start addressing the “elephant in the room” when it comes to mental health: “the assumption that it’s often easier to ‘sweep it under the carpet’ rather than taking steps to support employees needs to be addressed”. Instead employers need to focus more on supporting employees with mental illness, arguing the need to proactively create a company culture that attempts to prevent employees from undertaking working practices that are damaging to their mental wellbeing: “Employers must accept the scale of mental ill health in the workplace and start taking a preventative approach now. This means getting the work culture right in the first place so they promote good work and work-life balance […] Employees must feel that the workplace is supportive of, rather than detrimental to, their mental health”.
Despite the bleak statistics, we are on our way to breaking the stigma and improving employee wellbeing. World mental health day on the 10th of October broke the internet with the trending hashtags #MentalHealthAwareness and #BreakTheStigma flooding the web and helping people to speak out about mental health. Alongside this, Theresa May has promised to reform mental health legislations and the Queen’s Speech said the Government will “ensure that mental health is prioritised in the NHS”.
Now employers need to continue to take action surrounding the wellbeing of their employees.
With mental health affecting one in six people on a weekly basis, there’s no doubting the numbers – mental illness is a workplace problem that needs to be addressed today. If employers have a duty of care to protect our bodies from workplace injury, then this duty should be extended to protect our minds from cultures that fuel anxiety and stress.
While the root causes of mental ill health are as varied as the ways in which different conditions affect individuals, employers cannot ignore the numbers and it’s a problem that’s only going to grow unless more is done to open up communication channels, ensure adequate support training and recognise that the duty of care employers have to protect our bodies at work covers our minds too.