7 October 2021

The stigma surrounding mental health issues at work

Getting mental health support at work

There’s one World Mental Health day each year, but it’s a year-round issue

Since Covid, we talk more freely about our mental health issues than in the past. However, despite years of positive change, there is still a stigma around mental health in many workplaces. A recent MHR survey of over 6000 UK-based employees found nearly half would be reluctant to discuss mental health issues at work – concerned the discussion could harm their careers.

Culturally – in and outside of work – welcome progress has been made in recent years in terms of attitudes towards difference. We now live in a generally more welcoming, tolerant society than a generation ago. Yet, it seems, this change hasn’t extended as far into our collective psyche when it comes to mental health issues. If someone needs a hip replacement, they get it done, if they have high blood pressure, they get it treated. Yet, mental health still seems to be taboo in some quarters. Why?

Mental health issues at work are increasing

Before we consider why, we need to think about the current scale of mental health issues.

For most of 2020 and 2021 our lives have been impacted to varying, and often significant, degrees by the pandemic. Governments, educational institutions, businesses and individuals have had to navigate previously unknown territory adapting to changes the pandemic has forced upon us. Increased mental health issues at work during this time surprised no one – something reflected by a 16% rise in absenteeism attributed to mental health in 2021 against 2020. Over a third of employees (35%) surveyed took time off for mental health issues in 2021.

This comes despite a 26% increase in organisations offering mental health first aid training. Clearly, it’s something many people don’t want to talk about – preferring to quietly take some time off rather than discuss it at work – even privately. There’s still a long way to go. As recently as 2017 Business in the Community’s Mental Health at Work Report found 15% of employees who revealed a mental health issue at work faced some kind of censure in the form of disciplinary action, demotion or even dismissal. Little wonder many people opt to keep quiet and simply retreat when they’re struggling.

In light of the last 18 months a change in outlook, mood or feelings for many people shouldn’t be much of a surprise. But life hasn’t simply reset to normal – or whatever normal was prior to March 2020. People have lost family and friends, many have been ill, or away from work and friends – isolation and loneliness a secondary pandemic. Many small businesses have folded, education interrupted, lives put on hold and travel largely curtailed. The world of work has changed with hybrid and remote working becoming a ‘thing’ on a scale like never before.

There is no ‘going back to normal’. We need, in the short-term at least, to anticipate an ongoing impact on mental health. And in managing this we need to look at ways of addressing the stigma of mental health issues.

Addressing mental health issues at work

Organisations and individuals need to consider a few things:

  • Mental health issues aren’t rare. According to the charity Mind, one in four people will experience mental health illness in any year.
  • Mental health issues can be fixed. Very rarely are they permanent.
  • In just about every workplace of more than a dozen people there will be people experiencing mental health issues in any given year.

What can be done?

  • Firstly, acknowledge it’s not just an ‘HR thing’.
  • Accept that mental health issues can impact anyone (and everyone can help).
  • Realise that ignoring it won’t make it go away.
  • Business owners and senior leaders need to re-think their attitudes and approach to mental health issues.
  • A broader examination of an organisation’s culture may reveal attitudes and behaviours out of step with current thinking on a range of things including mental health. Identifying what needs to be fixed is the first hurdle.
  • Organisations have a duty of care. If a manager thinks one of their team members is struggling, they probably are, and they should put measures in place to support them.
  • Document, disseminate and discuss your organisation’s policies around mental health, diversity, bullying and what a past generation would’ve regarded as ‘tricky topics’. Get things out in the open. Change will come, but not if people remain silent.
  • Lead by example. If business owners and senior people talk about mental health, they will start to break down the taboo. More people will start to talk about it. Ultimately more people will feel comfortable talking about it.
  • Make people aware of tell-tale signs to spot in colleagues, friends and others.
  • Roll out mental health awareness training across the organisation. Having mental health first aiders on board – with employees aware of them – is a great starting point.
  • Regular manager check-ins with team members will also go some way to identifying and discussing issues of concern – including mental health.

Fixing mental health at work is a win-win

Employees are assets. A higher performing asset is of more value to the organisation than a struggling one. Protect, nurture and look after them and deliver a win-win.

There’s no single formula to address the rise in mental health issues at work. But things can be done. Firstly, we need to genuinely acknowledge the problem. Secondly, we need to break down the taboos surrounding it. Third, we need to discuss it and communicate more effectively in general.

And last but not least, we need to remember that a happier, contented employee is also a productive employee.



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Simon Wooldridge, Content Writer, MHR

Simon Wooldridge

Simon is a content writer at MHR.

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