Time to act now on mental health at work

The importance of supporting people’s mental health at work has slowly but surely gained recognition in the UK over the past few years, and with very good reason. The most recent large-scale survey of adults living in England found that nearly one person in four (23%) had at least one psychiatric disorder.

Greater awareness of the high proportion of people who experience a mental health problem at some point in their lives has encouraged a broader appreciation of holistic health and well-being approaches that address the psychological, as well as the physical, risks affecting people’s health. This is a great step forward. However, new research by CIPD finds that there’s significant scope for employers to improve the support they have in place to promote good mental health and support those who experience poor mental health.

Almost a third (31%) of the 2,000-plus UK employees surveyed say they have experienced a mental health problem at some stage of their working life. This compares with 26% of employees when we carried out a similar survey five years ago.

Despite the increase in the number of people experiencing poor mental health, less than half of respondents (46%) think that their organisation supports employees with mental health ‘very’ or ’fairly’ well. This is an improvement on the 37% of respondents who thought so in 2011, but it still shows that many more employers need to put in place a more robust framework to promote good mental health and support those experiencing poor mental health.

This means developing both preventative and reactive measures to support people, starting with training line managers so that they have the skills and knowledge necessary to spot the early warning signs of possible issues, to signpost staff to appropriate support and to have a good-quality conversation with an individual who’s experiencing a mental health issue.

Effective policies – such as phased return to work, access to occupational health services and flexible working – have a key role to play in supporting good mental health at work. Even more fundamental is creating an open culture that reduces stigma and empowers people to disclose a mental health issue – this culture shift should be led by senior managers and supported by HR, and championed at every level across the organisation. Employers should think about introducing mental-health awareness training for all employees and establishing a network of mental-health champions to help create this culture change and develop people’s understanding and acceptance of mental health issues at work.

The urgency with which employers should be addressing this agenda will only increase, and not abate, in the years to come.

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