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Sue Baker

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How to replace mental health stigma and silence with support and openness


Work is a huge part of many people’s lives – it’s where we spend a lot of our time and energy – and yet the workplace repeatedly crops up as a place where those of us with a mental health problem experience high levels of stigma and discrimination.

Statistics show that due to the fear of negative attitudes from colleagues, many employees still don’t feel able to speak about mental health at work. In a study for BBC 5 Live, 49% of respondents said they would be unlikely to talk to their manager about mental health, and a Mind study found 95% of people who take time off sick for stress gave another reason.

It’s not only employees who benefit from a more open working environment, supportive employers also achieve higher levels of staff wellbeing and retention. When we consider that mental ill health is the leading cause of sickness absence in the UK, costing an average of £1,035 per employee per year, it’s evident that looking after staff wellbeing benefits everyone – no matter what their role or seniority is, or whether they have a mental health problem or not.

We need to do more to encourage a culture of support, not silence, if we’re going to improve working life for the millions of people who experience a mental health problem. But how do we do that?

Review and reinforce your policy

The first step is to let employees know they won’t be treated differently or be discriminated against if they decide to disclose a mental health problem. Clearly inform employees of what support they can expect to receive and how they can obtain it at all levels and areas of the organisation.

Start by reviewing your policy around mental health, whether that’s a standalone policy or more generally around wellbeing. At this stage you might want to involve staff across the organisation, or to use focus groups. Input from outside of the HR or wellbeing teams ensures that the message is accessible to all.

Senior leaders have a pivotal role to play in leading by example by being open about their own experiences with mental health problems.

Reinforce your policy by distributing it and ensuring everyone knows where to find it if they need to access it in the future.

Make a commitment

Working with employers from a variety of sectors over the past six years has given us a good understanding of what works to ensure a mentally healthy workplace – these key elements are incorporated into the Time to Change Employer Pledge.

This gives organisations the opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to opening up the conversation about mental health and to making sure their staff feel supported to talk about their experiences, should they choose to do so. So far, over 700 employers have made that commitment.  

Start the conversation

It is important to equip and support line managers to feel comfortable enough to have conversations about mental health with their direct reports. Avoiding the issue could make people feel more inclined to hide their mental health problem.  

Too many people with mental health problems are still made to feel isolated and alone.

Using a tool such as a Wellness Action Plan can help facilitate the conversation. By noting down symptoms and triggers of poor mental health, employees can advise their line manager on how best to support them if they notice something might be wrong. It’s also a reminder for the employee to manage their own wellbeing – and to seek support when they need to.

Lead by example

Creating a more open workplace requires buy-in at all levels. Senior leaders have a pivotal role to play in leading by example, by being open about their own experiences with mental health problems they can send a strong message that this isn’t a sign of weakness and doesn’t limit your ambition or aspiration.  

Speak out

Encouraging employees to speak publicly about their mental health at work is also critical. Giving talks at events and meetings, through blog posts or the intranet can be a great way to do this. Feedback from employers tells us that talking honestly and openly in this way makes the biggest difference in starting a cultural shift.

Be consistent

A consistent approach to mental health awareness helps remind staff that your organisation truly cares. Holding events, awareness days or campaigns throughout the year keeps up the ‘noise’ and prompts more open conversations.

Recruit employee champions

Our pledged employers tell us it’s crucial to have people ‘on the ground’ in the form of employee champions. These champions challenge stigma in the workplace, normalise conversations about mental health and encourage those who need help to feel comfortable asking for it.

The Time to Change employers team has a dedicated staff member to assist signatories to our pledge to recruit and support champions. However, any organisation can recruit people to champion the cause. The key is that the organisation gets behind the role and allows time for the champion to carry out their duties in this capacity.

Our vision of a great mental health champion is someone who is:

  • Passionate about helping people to understand that mental health belongs to everybody by getting everyone to talk about mental health.

  • Able to give time and resources to undertake meaningful activities that help people to change the way they think and act about mental health.

  • Willing to engage colleagues constructively and positively when taking action to tackle mental health stigma, and encouraging others to do so too.

  • Able to empower colleagues to share their experiences of mental health problems in the workplace and encourage them to become champions too. 

At Time to Change, we want every employer to create a working environment where people can open up to mental health problems: to talk and to listen. Too many people with mental health problems are still made to feel isolated and alone but with the right support from those around them, people can recover and have equal opportunities in all areas of life – including work.

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