The number of people experiencing a mental health problem while in work has climbed from a quarter to a third in the past 5 years, yet many employers still take a reactive approach to the issue, according to new figures.
Figures from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), the professional body for HR and people development, also found that the majority of employees still don’t feel that people experiencing mental health issues are supported well enough at work.
In response, the CIPD is calling on organisations to take a more preventative approach to employees’ mental wellbeing, encouraging a culture of openness in their workplace, while at the same time training line managers to provide and signpost support for employees, in order to create healthier, more engaged and productive workplaces.
The CIPD surveyed more than 2,000 employees and found that 31% of respondents said they have experienced a mental health problem at some point during their working life, compared with 26% in 2011. Of those who have had poor mental health at work, 42% have experienced a problem in the past 12 months specifically, to the extent it has affected their health and wellbeing.
Despite this increase, the number of respondents who say their organisation supports employees with mental health issues either ‘very’ or ‘fairly well’ remains less than half (46%). While this is a significant improvement since 2011, when just 37% of respondents said their organisation was able to support employees either fairly or very well, it highlights that there is still a significant way for employers to go to better support staff with mental health issues.
Worryingly, just 44% employees would currently feel confident disclosing unmanageable stress or mental health problems to their current employer or manager, a similar proportion as reported five years ago (41%).
Rachel Suff, employment relations adviser at the CIPD, said: “With people’s experiences of mental health problems at work on the increase, it’s disappointing not to see more employers stepping up to address them. Mental health should get just as much attention, awareness and understanding as physical health, and employers have a responsibility to manage stress and mental health at work, making sure employees are aware of, and able to access, the support available to them.
“This agenda needs to be championed from the very top by business leaders and senior staff – either through role-modelling or open conversations about their own experiences. There’s also a clear role for HR professionals and line managers to ensure that employees are getting the support they need and feel they can speak up. It’s crucial that organisations work to promote an open and inclusive culture so that employees feel confident about disclosing mental health issues and discussing the challenges they are experiencing. Promoting good mental health also makes good business sense, as employees are likely to be more engaged and productive if they work for an organisation with a workforce wellbeing strategy that emphasises the importance of both good mental and physical health.”
The CIPD’s survey also asked employees what types of support their employer currently provides to manage and help people with mental health problems. The most common provisions were phased return to work (32% of employees), access to flexible working arrangements (30%), access to occupational health services (27%) and access to counselling services (27%).
But training for line managers in managing and supporting people with mental health problems was only provided by 10% of employers.
“We’re seeing a distinct trend of reactive measures when it comes to how employers support people with mental health issues,” Suff added. “These are very important, but we also need to see more preventative steps to promote good mental wellbeing. Where possible, employees with mental health problems should be able to access support before problems escalate to a point where they struggle to manage work and their illness, and need to take time out of work. Of course, there will be occasions where people experiencing a mental health problem will need to take time off work and then it’s important that the right framework, including occupational health services and phased return to work, is in place to support them in that situation.
“It’s particularly disappointing to see such a low level of training by employers for line managers in how to manage and support people with mental health problems. Line managers play such a crucial role in an employee’s experience of work, and are often the first line of defence in terms of spotting problems and supporting individuals should they ask for help. Therefore, their management style, the relationships they have with staff, and their ability to implement policies are all paramount to how supported people feel at work.
“A lot of it is simply about employees feeling that their line manager cares and will support them if they say ‘I need to talk’. However, line managers are not counsellors and will need training themselves if they are to feel confident and competent to create this ‘open’ culture and support and manage employees with mental health issues. This should be the starting point for employers.”
The CIPD recommends three ways that line managers can make a difference:
• At the beginning of a new working relationship, be clear that no problem is too big, small or personal for an employee to raise
• Work to create a culture of openness and encourage staff to discuss their challenges. Make time to have conversations that go beyond a person’s immediate and short-term workload and discuss their role, responsibilities and opportunities more generally
• Know when and how to direct people to access specialist help either internally through the organisation, such as counselling and/or occupational health services, or externally via mental health groups and charities.
Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at mental health charity Mind, said: “It’s clear that there’s a high prevalence of mental health problems among employees. It’s good to see more people feeling comfortable enough to let their workplace know when they’re struggling with their mental health, which is likely to be an indication that employers are fostering an open culture where staff feel able to disclose their problems. However, it’s vital that employers also have good support in place for all staff, including those experiencing unmanageable stress or poor mental health. Employees need to be reassured that if they do put their hands up, they’ll be met with understanding, and additional support if necessary.
“Creating mentally healthy workplaces needn’t be difficult or expensive, often it’s about putting in place small adjustments, such as regular communication and flexible working hours. Being able to identify and support a colleague struggling with poor mental health can also make a big difference, which is why Mind delivers mental health awareness training to line managers. We’re also launching a Workplace Wellbeing Index – a benchmark of best policy and practice which will enable employers to recognise the good work they’re doing when it comes to promoting good mental health at work, as well as highlighting areas for improvement.”