October 12, 2016

How can managers deal with conversations about mental ill health?

One in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year, according to the mental health charity Mind. One in six workers suffer from stress, anxiety or depression at any one time and 50% of long term absences in non-manual workers is caused by stress, according to CIPD research. These are statistics that have been in the public domain for some time.

A new, in depth survey into mental ill health was launched by the charity Business in the Community (BITC) just before World Mental Health Day on Monday (10 October). One of the key findings of the research, called the ‘National Employee Mental Wellbeing Survey’, is that two-thirds of employees have experienced mental ill health because of work.

Well over half (62%) of the 20,000 plus people taking part in the survey said their symptoms of poor mental health were because of work or that work was a contributing factor. Almost a third (29%) of employees said they have been diagnosed with a mental health condition.

Considering all the research that has been carried out into mental health and the findings that emerge, it is not surprising that employees’ mental health and wellbeing has moved up the workplace agenda in recent years.

Are employers doing enough? Many think so. Over half (60%) of board members and senior managers polled in the BITC survey think that their organisation is supportive of people with mental health issues.

However, what do less senior employees think? Do managers feel well equipped and confident to deal with conversations about mental ill health? The survey suggests that many do not.

The majority (76%) of line managers think that employee wellbeing is their responsibility, yet only 22% of managers have been given training on mental health at work. Almost half (49%) said even basic training in common mental health conditions would be useful and 38% think it would be useful to receive training on how to talk to employees about wellbeing.

But would employees be willing to talk? Do they feel comfortable talking about mental health issues with HR? Their line manager? Colleagues? Only 11% of employees polled by BITC have discussed a recent mental health problem with their line manager and half of employees say they would not talk about their mental health with their line manager.

And those that have talked to their employers about any mental health issues? Over half (56%) said that their employer took no mitigating action.

Some fear disciplinary action and the figures show that those fears are by no means unfounded – 9% of employees who suffered symptoms of mental ill health experienced disciplinary action, up to and including, dismissal.

The BITC report makes it clear that there is a disparity between how supportive employers think they are and how supportive employees think their bosses are. To overcome that disparity, BITC recommends first-aid training in mental health for staff. This means giving employees the skills and confidence to recognise the signs and symptoms of common mental health issues. It means teaching them how to listen, empathise and help employees access the support they need.

After all, mental ill health is not only bad for employees, it’s also bad for employers too.