How to change attitudes to mental health in the workplace

A recent survey about mental resilience of almost 2,000 workers found that nearly a third of UK employees feel unsure about who to talk to or where to find help or support regarding mental health.

And, nearly 40% of people find it hard to talk to or open up about their mental health to anyone.

So how can businesses help to break down these barriers and help to address how we view and approach mental health in the workplace? We asked Fiona Lowe of Westfield Health to outline some ideas.

1 in 4 affected by mental health issues

Mental health problems are common, with one in 4 people affected, and stress is now the most common reason for workers being signed off on long-term sick.

We probably all work with someone who is experiencing or who has experienced a mental health problem. However, these findings show that employees often feel isolated and lost, not knowing who to talk to or where to turn.

Out of those who’ve experienced a mental health issue, 32% felt they were treated differently by their line manager after returning to work following absence related to mental ill-health, and a fifth believed that their fellow colleagues’ attitudes towards them had changed.

Perhaps these problems all stem from the ‘stiff upper lip’ culture where we feel that admitting mental health problems shows some kind of weakness.

While nine out of 10 people with mental health problems experience stigma and discrimination, the reasons why people remain silent about it in the workplace are varied.

Changing attitudes to mental health in the workplace

Some fear that opening up about a mental health issue might affect their job or career progression, others don’t want to be seen as a ‘weak link’ within the team, and many reported that, although awareness is increasing, there’s still a lack of understanding around mental health.

Interestingly, we find it much easier to talk about physical ailments with our colleagues. Some employees prefer to say a physical ailment is the cause of a period of absence, rather than mental ill-health. This leads to the problem being masked and going undetected, which can make it difficult for an employer to provide the right support.

It’s essential we tackle this culture, making it acceptable to talk about mental health problems without the worry of facing stigma and discrimination as a result.

Importantly, employers need to do more to make it easy for staff to talk openly about these issues, and provide good levels of guidance and support. Managers should be trained to look out for common mental illness symptoms, encourage employees to talk openly, and signpost people to experts and clinicians for support when it’s needed.

To help employers as they start tackling this culture, here are some initial points to consider:

1. Signposting employees to helpful resources<

There’s a wealth of free, online resources, communities, and apps. In fact, although there are more resources than ever before, education and awareness around them still remain limited.

Employers should make these resources available to staff to access when needed. Some examples for employers to consider are Big White Wall and Mind Apples.

2. Undertaking employer training

Handling mental health issues in the workplace might not be something an employer has experienced in the past. But, there are courses that offer employer guidance and support for when it comes to spotting symptoms, encouraging employees to talk openly, and signposting people to experts and clinicians for support when needed.

A good place to start is the Mind website, workplace training and consultancy section.

3. Providing staff support where possible

It’s a good idea to provide flexibility where possible when it comes to issues that might cause employees stress or anxiety. For example, if someone has an elderly relative to care for they might prefer flexible working hours.

Also, it might be worth considering employee benefits which can help employees manage their mental resilience. For example, a health cash plan encourages staff to think proactively about their health and offers access to wellbeing services such as counselling and advice.

Alternatively, gym membership encourages staff to stay active which in turn means they are less likely to be depressed, anxious or tense.

We all have a responsibility for breaking down the workplace culture of silence when it comes to mental health and talking about this issue doesn’t need to be difficult.

These tips are just a starting point for creating a working environment where people can talk openly without fear and I hope they encourage employers to think about the various ways they can support this.

This article was kindly provided for ByteStart by Fiona Lowe, Head of HR Development and Strategy, at Westfield Health.

Last updated: 23rd March, 2022

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