Fear, judgement and a lack of understanding: why mental health stigma still exists at work

Understanding of mental health in the workplace is still very poor; many employers do not understand it and many employees do not feel comfortable discussing it

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In its May 2017 report Surviving or Thriving? The State of the UK’s Mental Health, the Mental Health Foundation found just a ‘small minority’ (13 percent) of people were living with ‘high levels’ of good mental health.*

Indeed, mental ill health is a big issue, with World Health Organisation data from studies in Europe putting the proportion of adults who’ve experienced a mental disorder at 27 percent – representing an estimated 83 million people.

In light of its prevalence you might think businesses would have policies in place to help employees experiencing mental ill health. But often this is not the case. In fact, mental ill health is often the elephant in the room, with many managers demonstrating misinformation and a lack of confidence towards the issue – leaving employees afraid to come forward for support.

Key failings
Stepping back, one of the difficulties with mental ill health is that it can go unnoticed. Signs, symptoms and severity vary from person to person so it can be a challenge identifying someone who might be struggling to cope. It can also be difficult for people who haven’t had personal experience with a mental health problem themselves to understand and relate to colleagues who might be experiencing difficulties. Lack of understanding also breeds fear and may lead to employers failing to properly address what is a significant business issue.

69 percent of senior business managers and owners didn’t believe suffering from stress, anxiety or depression was a serious enough reason for employees to be absent from work

Our own research into employer attitudes towards those experiencing mental ill health highlighted 69 percent of senior business managers and owners didn’t believe suffering from stress, anxiety or depression was a serious enough reason for employees to be absent from work. When asked how they would react if an employee they managed was suffering from a mental health issue, one in five said they would worry about the employee’s capability to do their job and one in six said they would worry about the consequences for themselves personally, such as it reflecting poorly on their management style or having to pick up additional work. These attitudes show how a lack of understanding coupled with fear and stigma can lead to little demonstration of empathy and may be a reason why so many employees are frightened to speak up about their problems.

Indeed, when asked if they would be honest with their line manager when calling in sick because they were suffering from stress, anxiety or depression, only 39 percent of employees said they would tell the truth. Of those who said they would avoid telling the truth, 23 percent said they were afraid of being judged and preferred to keep their health issues private; 15 percent were afraid they would not be believed and seven percent said they feared their line manager’s reaction to being told the truth.

How to treat mental illness at work
Mental ill health can have a profound effect on an employee’s ability to do their job. It can harm productivity, motivation and work relationships. However, this impact can be reduced by taking preventive measures and putting support systems in place for employees who are struggling to cope.

Being open, and encouraging individuals to share experiences can help eradicate the stigma around mental ill health; this can be done, for example, at team meetings or in one-to-ones. Senior managers can make a real impact by speaking candidly about their own experience. Setting an example from the top in this way gives a clear message that mental health is important and part of everyone’s overall wellbeing.

It’s also important for managers to have a reasonable awareness of the mental health issues that can affect their people – as well as the potential triggers – and be given sufficient support and training to enable them to initiate appropriate conversations with those who may be struggling to cope.

Businesses can adopt a number of approaches to help safeguard mental wellbeing

Sometimes it’s as simple as asking the employee how they are, or by talking about mental health regularly in catch ups; such methods can help to normalise the question. Educating managers on how to help support their employees and letting them know what assistance is available (access to a confidential counselling helpline, for example) will enable them to support their staff more confidently and effectively.

Positive approaches
Managers can’t remove all work pressures but they can work with employees to develop coping strategies to help to reduce stress – for example, through a change in working hours or a change of job role. As a part of their duty of care, managers should monitor and assess how their team members are coping. This can include talking to employees to identify and understand stresses and pressures they may be facing.

Additionally, businesses can adopt a number of approaches to help safeguard mental wellbeing – and boosting employee resilience – just as they do for physical wellbeing. Schemes such as cycle to work and gym memberships are good for both physical and mental health. Good quality occupational health, employee assistance programmes and confidential counselling support can also play a vital role in maintaining a healthy workplace.

When it comes to managing mental health at work, it makes good sense to consider the steps you can take to remove the stigma that often surrounds it and create an environment where employees are comfortable speaking up about how they feel and confident in the support they will find from their employer should they need it.

1. AXA PPP healthcare online survey of 1,000 senior business managers, MDs, CEOs and owners, and online survey of 1,000 non-exec employees undertaken in February 2015 by market researcher OnePoll