New research finds employers are taking a reactive approach to employees’ mental health issues, when preventative steps make better business sense

mental health issues

According to new research by CIPD, the number of people saying they have experienced mental health issues while in employment has increased significantly. The figure has climbed from a quarter to a third over the last five years. Despite this increase, the majority of employees still not feel that mental health issues are supported well enough at work.

The report revealed that in 2016, almost a third (31%) of the over 2,000 employees surveyed said they have experienced a mental health problem at some point during their working life, compared with a quarter (26%) in 2011. Of those who have had poor mental health at work, more than four in ten (42%) have experienced a problem in the past 12 months specifically, to the extent it has affected their health and wellbeing. 

Additionally, less than half (46%) of respondents say their organisation supports employees with mental health issues ‘very’ or ‘fairly well’. However, although this is a significant improvement of nine percentage points since 2011 - when there was just 37% who said this, it still highlights an urgent need for employers to better support staff with mental health issues. Worryingly, just four in ten employees (44%) 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, comments: “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 survey by CIPD also looked at the types of support employees currently receive. 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%). The least common provisions were mental health first aiders (3%), mental health champions (5%), and training for line managers in managing and supporting people with mental health problems (10%).

Suff continues: “We’re seeing a distinct trend of reactive measures when it comes to how employers support people with mental health issues. 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.”

Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing, at mental health charity Mind, also commented: “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.

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