I was at a meeting recently and I was talking to a boss of an SME about mental health in the workplace. I had been talking to him about the current issues and while he appeared interested, his response was “If anyone in my company had a mental health condition I would know about it”. Our conversation drifted off onto other subjects and we then parted. The name of his organisation did seem familiar and when I was back at the office I looked at the data we hold and found that we had supported a number of his employees with mental health and work issues….
We do see this kind of lack of awareness a lot in organisations and it doesn’t matter what size it is. It often comes across to SOHAS advisers that employers have a lack of awareness of their lack of awareness to mental health and work issues.
In the job retention service we provide in Sheffield, the number of people who want to access our service with mental health problems is growing and the issues we see are becoming more complex.
The people we see are increasingly uneasy about talking about their mental health with their employer as they believe that their capability to do their job will be questioned. The outcome of this is that they turn up for work when they are not well. When they aren’t well enough to work they tell their employer that they have a physical problem or they take holiday instead of calling in sick. As a last resort they will go to their GP who will sign them off sick for 14 days and their employer will get a fit note saying the cause of their absence is from stress, but it will not provide any clue as to the cause of the stress.
You can understand an employee’s anxiety about mental health and employment when you consider some key points from a recent survey of managers on mental health.
- 29% believe employees should not discuss mental health issues at work, with the percentage higher (36%) among younger managers.
- 19% would not want to hire someone with a declared mental illness, more so in bigger firms.
- 28% admit not knowing how to deal with employees’ mental health issues, with 71% interested in more training.
- 38% believe workplace stress is inevitable and out of employers’ control, but 77% concur that employers have a responsibility to tackle it. (1)
The reality is that mental health and employment issues are not getting better. A recent BBC news item reported up to 300,000 people a year leaving their job as a result of depression or other mental health illnesses. The figure was taken from Thriving at Work: a Review of Mental Health and Employers, a government-commissioned independent study that also found that mental health illness costs the economy nearly £99bn a year.
Sheffield has approximately 1% of the working population in England, so if the figure is to be believed, then 3,000 people left their job because of a mental health condition or 57 people a week. We know from the people we give advice to, who either quit or lose their job due to a mental health condition, that they struggle to get back to work. While there are a variety of back to work scheme’s our experience is that many of them don’t have trained mental health specialists who can give the right kind of support to get a job.
We think it’s time to a draw a line in the sand on mental health and employment issues. There is an urgent need to destigmatise mental health. That’s easily said, but what can be done to change the culture on workplace mental health issues?
When you start to read the statistics about mental health it is thought provoking information, but we worry about the believability of the figures being used. If you are running a small business and told that the cost of mental health issues is £99bn a year, I don’t think you connect with that. If you are told either 1-6 or 1-4 people will have a mental health condition during their life time and you have 5 employees does that make it real to you? We think the answer is no….
We think the problem is about how mental health is regarded as an illness, it’s about we view it. We talk to people who we give advice to with a mental health condition and they don’t see it as an illness. It is a health condition that they are managing whether through medication and/or therapeutic support. The issues are complex for employees and employers to manage and not helped by the views held by employers in the statistics above.
The conclusion we draw from talking to employers and line managers is that many believe mental health is a character flaw and not a psychological illness and if people wanted to get better they could if they wanted to. They can see a broken leg or wrist, it’s tangible and it makes sense for people to take time off, but the often invisibility of a mental health issue seems to cast doubts on what they are being told, they can’t see a clear end point where someone is healed, and they return to work as they were.
We seem to have built up mental health conditions on a pedestal with the potential for increasing the stigma around mental health and we would include ourselves as a part of this as we strive to provide advice and support to employees to stay in work.
Mental and physical health issues should be seen as significant and equal as each other, each with its own treatment pathways and well worked solutions on how to manage health in the workplace.
Here is what we think could be done to reduce stigma:
There is obviously a need for employers to engage with the mental health and employment issues as it is the key driver of sickness absence. Line managers need to be upskilled in how they support employees.
There needs to be review of the role in HR in organisations. The delegation of HR traditional roles to managers who receive little training to carry out the role is causing a huge amount of conflict between employees and line managers which is causing employees to go off sick with stress.
Every organisation should have a clear mental health policy which outlines the kind of support available in the workplace, currently only 30% of organisations have one
Train line managers in mental health and employment issues and how to use practical tools like wellness action plans to facilitate quicker returns to work and help their employees manage their mental health. This does not mean training people as Mental Health First Aiders as we do have evidence that some employers using people who are trained in this way to act as their mental occupational health service for their employees
Engage with support services and look at ways of how you can manage your mental health outside of work. We see too many people who self-medicate mental health problems with alcohol and drugs. Encourage people to try and articulate their mental health issues both in and out work. Wellness action plans are a good way for people to give information to their employer on the best way they can provide support that is tailored to their awareness of employee assistance programmes and primary support like IAPT
The government took away the ability of organisations claim back statutory sick pay to fund the failed Fit for Work service. When an employee is off sick, often other employees are expected to cover their colleagues role as well as their own, creating further pressure in the workplace. A move to reinstate the ability to claim back SSP restricted to the small businesses would give organisations the flexibility and money to back fill posts
Give a signal to employees and employers that it’s ok to use Personal Independence Payments if employees have a long term health condition
Provide support to GP’s on providing meaningful information on fit notes that can help employers provide the right kind of support to their employees
Invest more in job retention specialists in IAPT services who can play a crucial part in keeping people in employment