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Kate Cooper

Institute of Leadership and Management

Head of Research, Policy and Standards

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The career pitfalls of opening up about mental health at work


In their latest thought leadership research report The Institute of Leadership & Management have discovered that some employees who ask for support with mental health problems face career-changing consequences – and not for the better. Mind Culture, 2017 found that 8% of respondents faced negative consequences, including being sacked or forced out, demoted or subjected to disciplinary action.

More than half (51%) of the 433 survey respondents who had confided in their line manager about a mental health issue did not receive any support at all.

But before we discuss what needs to be done to urgently change such dire news, let’s look at the other findings in Mind Culture:

What mental health problem?

In the report, the Institute found that depression and anxiety were the most common diagnoses of mental health problems.

Of these, there was a higher percentage of females reporting a formal diagnosis than males.

The 30-39 age bracket had the highest levels of formal diagnosis. SMEs had a higher incidence of mental health issues related to the workplace. Are those who engage in multiple roles or activities experiencing an increase in the incidence of stress?

Seeking help

84% of respondents indicated that they had experienced symptoms linked to work related mental health issues.

Despite this only 46% said they would be comfortable talking to their manager about a mental health problem.

Most people sought support from their families first, then friends, before a GP. Colleagues and line managers were next, with occupational health or a counsellor the last choice.

Managing help

The main barrier to supporting people with mental health problems was the lack of appropriate training.

In Mind Culture, 68% of respondents reported no mental health training in the workplace. Despite this, 79% of managers felt confident they would recognise the potential symptoms of mental health problems in the people they manage.

I’m emphatic on what a critical business issue mental wellbeing in the workplace is, and how it cannot be ignored anymore. Mental health costs the UK £70 billion per year, equivalent to 4.5% of our GDP and the cost to employers is thought to be more than £26 billion a year. With mental ill health being the leading case of sickness absence in the UK, why are we not doing more to bridge the gap?

The research is shocking but we must try to understand how to create change. I have faith that lots of managers frequently want to help employees but they just don’t have the tools to go about it the best way.

So, what can we do?

Mental Health Toolkit

There is help and advice out there such as Business in the Community’s mental health toolkit but having the time and confidence to talk is the first step. It’s about tooling up and showing up for your staff. Organisations can invest in basic mental health literacy for all employees and first aid training in mental health to support line manager capability.

Don’t just take time off

When asked what may have helped, respondents in the Institute’s report indicated that rather than time off work, which accounted for 16%, active solutions such as support with workload, working from home and coaching/ mentoring would have been helpful. More support is therefore required within the workplace to enable people to remain connected to their workplace, rather than having time off work as the first option and feeling isolated.

Brentwood Community Print, a social enterprise print and graphic design business in Essex reinvests all profits from the business in their stakeholders who are all adults in recovery from mental health illnesses.

Director Audrey Clark has a refreshing approach to her staff’s wellbeing: “We operate an open-door policy and everyone knows that if there is an issue that day affecting their mental health, they will be listened to straight away. That person would not be sent home but encouraged to focus on work whilst being supported by their peers. The reason we take this approach is firstly to show that our team are valued as individuals and secondly, by remaining in work they learn how to develop strategies to cope with the symptoms of their illness and be able to remain in work thus avoiding long term sickness leave and possibly isolation that can lead to a deterioration in mental health.”

The future of wellbeing

The Institute have found that the largest organisations had more wellbeing options available, yet these were considered workplaces that cared least about employee wellbeing. For example only 18% of respondents indicated that counselling would be useful – and yet 52% of the larger organisations had an employee assistance scheme which usually includes brief counselling as a benefit.

Again we have a disconnect that needs to be repaired through careful consideration and strategy that reflects the real needs of employees and managers.

Workplace support and adjustments to aid continued working were considered to be amongst the most helpful in the Mind Culture report.

It is therefore vital to have human resources and occupational health services that are considered helpful and responsive together with the assistance of the line manager. Indeed, having line managers who are supported within an organisation to provide ongoing workplace support for people with mental health problems is crucial.

Dame Carol Black (Black, 2008) proposed that good work can strengthen mental wellbeing and also be an important part of recovery for people with mental health issues.

However, this needs to include tangible support options that can be put into practice when needed, such as reasonable adjustments. Human resources and occupational health services are key in this as a support function.

To read the full Mind Culture report, click here.

One Response

  1. This is generally because
    This is generally because there a lack of understanding from many on the difference between mental health and emotional health. There is a big difference. We often here such reports that 1 in 4 of us will suffer a mental health problem at some point in out life, this is a complete facially, only a small proportion of the population will actually suffer a mental heath problem. The majority of population will at some point suffer an emotional health issue at some point in their life. The terming of everything as being Mental is more for political benefit by those bigger organisations trying to use scare tactics on the population and hit governments for additional funding. Anxiety is not for instance a “mental health problem” it is in fact a normal state of the human emotion. High levels of anxiety are generally due to peoples learning or negative learning and life’s issues, ie, bereavements, relationship issues, work related issues, financial problems, family problems, and these can be resolved for many very easily and quickly with the use of the talking therapies, Counselling, Psychotherapy, CBT, Clinical hypnosis and such. The sooner we learn that as a population and learn that we also, employers and well as employees need to take a proactive approach to resolving emotional health issues, then the sooner we will come to a better understanding of mental and emotional health care….. If an employee looses a family member to an unexpected death, then the issue is bereavement, a natural human feeling, that in many cases should be addressed quickly and promptly, before that bereavement has time to generate in to a high anxiety level, same applies is a employee anxiety levels are high due to work place bullying, the issue is bullying and the result anxiety in the victim, again this can be addressed quickly and easy and corrected if the victim is allowed to come forward with reprisal. Neither of the 2 scenarios constitute to mental health,well only in the eyes of those who portray mental health as a political tool to gain additional leverage of a political playing fields for there own financial gain of course.

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Kate Cooper

Head of Research, Policy and Standards

Read more from Kate Cooper