Supporting Mental Health in the Workplace

What is Mental Health?

​Several reports show that approximately one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year.

Therefore, it is very likely that employers will have individuals working for and with them who are suffering from poor mental health and it is important that employers understand what exactly this means.

As described by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), mental health is about how we think, feel and behave. Anxiety and depression are the most common mental health problems and whilst they are often a reaction to a difficult life event they can also be caused by work-related issues.

Work can also aggravate pre-existing conditions, and problems at work can bring on the symptoms of mental health or make their effects worse.

Mental health conditions can range from relatively common disorders such as depression and anxiety to the more rare bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Most people’s mental health will rise and fall depending on pressures and/or experiences in their life. A person may therefore feel in good mental health generally but also experience stress or anxiety from time to time.

A recent study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that, for the first time, stress is the major cause of long-term absence in manual and non-manual workers.

Whether work is causing the health issue or aggravating it, employers have a legal responsibility to help their employees.

Why Does Mental Health Matter?

As  outlined above, as one in four people in the UK suffer from mental health issues every year, most workplaces will have employees currently facing diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health challenges.

However, the stigma associated with mental health means that many employees do not feel able to disclose the real reason of their absences from work. Mental Health First Aid England found that 90% of those who had time off work for stress felt unable to tell their employers of the real reason for their absence. Time To Change found that 49% of employers would feel uncomfortable speaking to their employers about mental health. This suggests that UK workplaces are not supportive enough for those facing mental health challenges.

Mental health related absences have a huge impact on the UK’s economy and its businesses, the Chief Medical Officer estimates that 70 million working days are lost each year to mental health, costing Britain between £70-100 billion a year.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that work-related stress alone causes over 11 million sick days a year. The HSE found the most common reasons for work-related stress were task related reasons: ‘excessive workload’ and ‘unrealistic work expectations’. However, restrictive factors such as ‘work-life balance’, ‘lack of progression’ and ‘negative company culture’ also featured as top reasons for work-related stress absences.

This illustrates how work can either cause or aggravate pre-existing mental health conditions, with problems at work exaggerating an individual’s symptoms.

Research from Time To Change indicates that two thirds of people with mental health problems believe that workplace stress contributed to their illnesses.

Whether work is causing mental health issues, or aggravating an existing problem, employers have a legal responsibility to support their employees. However, many employers either do not know how to support their employees with such issues, or just don’t consider it to be their responsibility.

As employers have a duty of care towards their employees, businesses should assess the level of risk to staff. Where risks are identified, steps must be taken to remove it, or minimize it as much as possible.

Businesses should be aware that people with a mental illness have a legal right to ask their employer to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to their working environment and job. Employers have a legal obligation to make these reasonable adjustments under equalities legislation for those who are eligible, including individuals with mental health illnesses such as depression, bipolar or schizophrenia.

So, are you doing enough to support your employees’ mental health?

How Can Employers Look After Their Workforces’ Mental Health?

Personal Group found that 40% of UK workplaces do not offer any mental health support for staff and 66% of UK employees feel that their employers do not offer sufficient mental health support. This illustrates the gap between the support employees are expecting from their employers, and the assistance they receive in reality.

Above we outlined how many employees feel unable to talk to their employers about their own mental health and how UK workplaces can be more supportive.

Below we have created a useful reference checklist of essential practices that employers should have in place (or if not, should be implementing):

Health Awareness

  • Understanding any pre-existing mental health conditions will be critical in helping you support employees with underlying challenges and being aware of risks or stressors which could trigger their symptoms. Use pre-employment medical questionnaires so employees can inform you of any historic or current mental health conditions they have. Where needed or requested by the employee, businesses should make reasonable adjustments to the job or workplace.
  • Complete a stress at work risk assessment for your workplace (see HSE website for a helpful template) and act to reduce and avoid risks. Where an individual has identified a mental health condition on their pre-employment questionnaire, make time to meet with them to see if any reasonable adjustments are required to their role or to the environment they will be working in.

Absence Support

  • Support any employees who are on mental health related long-term absences by maintaining regular contact with them (if appropriate). This will help them feel supported and included. Make any reasonable adjustments required to enable their return to work.
  • Do not discourage or shame staff from taking short-term absences related to mental health for example a few days off for stress or depression. Being accepting and supportive of occasional short-term mental health related absences, could mean that an individual is less likely to be absent from the workplace long-term.

Avoid Discrimination

  • Create a positive workplace culture where it is socially acceptable to discuss mental health challenges. Opt into initiatives such as Time To Change.
  • Offer training to line managers to increase their mental health awareness and their knowledge on how to manage and support those with mental health issues.
  • Ensure internal processes like recruitment and absence management are not discriminatory towards those with mental health conditions. Very often businesses will treat the management of physical illnesses and absences very differently from the way they manage mental illnesses and absences. If this is true for your business then you are most likely discriminating against those with mental health conditions.

Essential Support

  • Access telephone helplines if you have concerns about an individual staff member’s unusual behaviours or actions. Your interventions may save someone’s life.
  • Read and use free toolkits and resources available from various mental health charities.
  • Speak to a qualified Mental Health First Aider if you have any concerns or questions about your employees.

How Can Employers Improve the Mental Health Support They Offer?

Above we have listed the essential practices that businesses should have in place as part of their duty of care for employees’ mental health and wellbeing. Many businesses will want to go above and beyond this basic duty and progress towards creating a positive wellbeing culture. Businesses can promote a healthier working culture in support of their employees’ health and mental wellbeing.
The UK working population is growing ever more conscientious of their health and wellbeing. With the average UK employee spending £174 a month on wellbeing related products; leading employers will be factoring health and wellbeing into their business’ reward and benefits package to make them a the most attractive prospective employer for applicants.
Many top employers have found that making a commitment to the mental and emotional wellbeing of their staff will not only benefit individuals, but will improve productivity, retention and staff satisfaction.
Popular health and wellbeing benefits (that you may have already heard of) include:
  • Employee assistance programme;
  • Health insurance;
  • Private medical cover;
  • Quiet spaces;
  • Workplace massages;
  • Physiotherapy sessions;
  • Yoga classes;
  • Free fruit;
  • Gym membership;
  • Flexible working arrangements;
  • Work sports and social teams;
  • Ping pong table (found to be the most desired benefit in a survey of Millennials by PerkBox!);
  • Break out areas.

We think that mental health conscious employers can go beyond the above benefits. We’ve developed a list of innovative businesses who can offer alternative solutions to improve the mental health support you offer your employees.

Click on the links below to find out more about these innovative approaches to improving employee wellbeing:

Taking positive steps to improve the management of mental health in the workplace can help employers to:

  • Reduce absence and turnover along with the associated costs;
  • Increase productivity and attendance;
  • Create higher staff engagement and satisfaction;
  • Meet your duty of care towards employees and your legislative obligations.

Useful contacts and resources for employers and employees

So far we have looked at what is mental health, how businesses can avoid discriminating against those with mental health, and what processes, support and benefits employers can implement to better support their own employees’ mental health and wellbeing.

We have created a list of useful resources that businesses can use to refer to when managing and supporting their employees with mental health issues. These resources include toolkits for managers, guidance and advice for employers as well as helplines.

Sources for workplace guidance and advice

  • ACAS – provides free information and advice to employers and employees on workplace relations and employment law

Telephone support and helplines

  • Beat – a helpline for those with eating disorders 0808 801 0677 /
  • Papyrus – a young person’s suicide prevention society 0800 068 4141 /
  • Refuge – advice helpline for dealing with domestic violence 0808 2000 247 /
  • Samaritans – confidential support for those experiencing distress or despair 116 123 /
  • SANE – support line for those affected by mental illness, as well as their families and carers 0300 304 7000 /

Useful resources for business and managers

  • Mindful Employer – aiming to increase awareness of mental health at work and provides information to organisations to support staff

If you have any questions about our Mental Health blog series, if you have any concerns for your employees, or if you want to discuss mental health support at work, please contact EmployAssist. Kim and Ezra from the EmployAssist team are qualified Mental Health First Aiders

[email protected] / 0333 400 7920 /

This blog series was written for awareness of Time To Talk Day on 7th February 2019.