An overview of the main developments in the workplace health and well-being agenda over the past decade and focus on the future priorities for the HR profession
Mental health issues have a significant impact on employee well-being and are a major cause of long-term absence from work. Employers are encouraged to promote good mental health and provide support for those employees who are experiencing mental ill health such as anxiety or depression.
This factsheet gives an overview of mental health issues in the workplace – an issue which affects one in four people at some point in their lives. It provides guidance on supporting employees’ mental health at work, including spotting early signs of mental health issues, training line managers, and promoting a good work-life balance. The factsheet emphasises the importance of making adjustments at work and offers guidance on providing specialist clinical and professional advice for employees who need it.
Organisations should adopt a positive attitude towards those experiencing or recovering from mental health issues. Where possible, reasonable adjustments should be made to ensure people with a mental health issue can access employment and make a positive contribution to the organisation.
There remains a lot of stigma about mental health in society and the workplace. Increasing awareness of mental health issues across the workforce can help to break the silence and start to build a more open and inclusive culture. As an employer, we’ve signed the Time to Change Employer Pledge.
Managers need to feel confident and competent to have conversations with staff about sensitive issues like mental health and signpost to specialist sources of support if necessary. HR should ensure that employees know how to access the support the organisation provides so they can do so even if they don’t wish to disclose an issue to their manager.
As well as establishing a supportive framework to respond to staff when an issue emerges, it’s essential to promote good mental health throughout the workforce. Investing in employee well-being is not just the right thing to do, it makes clear business sense because it enhances morale and productivity, which in turn supports business growth.
What is mental health?
We all have mental health, just as we all have physical health. Both change throughout our lives, and like our bodies, our minds can become unwell. The World Health Organisation describes mental health as ‘a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community’. ‘There’s no health without mental health’ was the central and powerful message from the UK’s Department of Health in 2011. A Mental Health Taskforce, formed in March 2015, ‘brings together health and care leaders and experts in the field, including people using services, to lead a programme of work to create a mental health Five Year Forward View for the NHS in England’. In 2017 the Government commissioned an independent expert review into mental health practices in the workplace, to which the CIPD contributed, as part of a broader package of measures to reform mental health provision in the UK.
Our Absence management surveys show that mental health issues are a major cause of long-term sickness absence from work and our report Employee Outlook: Focus on mental health in the workplace found that more than three people in ten have experienced mental ill health while in employment. So it’s likely that we’ll be either affected ourselves by a mental health issue or be supporting someone who is. Research by Centre Forum Commission led by former Health Minister Paul Burstow found that mental health problems cost UK employers £26 billion each year, averaging £1,035 per employee.
Mental ill health can range from anxiety and depression (the most common mental health issues) to severe mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. The websites of organisations such as Mind and Rethink Mental Illness describe the most common physical and psychological aspects of different mental health conditions.
People with mental health problems are not a homogenous group. Individuals will face specific challenges, and some may need little or no support at work. Discrimination against those with mental health issues remains widespread, even though a significant proportion of the workforce will face mental health difficulties during their working life.
The Health and Safety Executive points out that ‘Most people with mental health problems are diagnosed and treated by their GP and continue to work productively. In fact, evidence shows that staying in work can be a great help to those affected.’
There's a strong business case for organisations to promote good physical and good mental health for all staff. Actively promoting staff well-being leads to greater staff productivity, morale and retention, and reduced sickness absence.
The legal position
In the UK, the disability discrimination provisions in the Equality Act 2010 encompass many mental illnesses which can legally be classed as a disability. A range of mental health conditions may qualify a person for protection under the Act providing there is a substantial and long-term effect (for at least a year) on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day duties. Mental impairments do not need to be clinically well-recognised in order to qualify as a disability. See more in our factsheet on workplace stress.
If an employee has a disability, their organisation has a responsibility to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate their needs – this includes those with mental health conditions. Find out more in our disability in the workplace factsheet. However, even if someone’s mental health condition has not been classed as a disability within the definition of the Act, it’s still good practice for an employer to make appropriate adjustments to their work or working pattern to support them in employment.
Supporting employees’ mental health at work
Employers should support employees’ mental health by promoting good mental health as well as providing support when an issue emerges. Listen to our podcast on promoting and supporting good mental health.
The culture of the organisation and the extent of awareness and training around mental health will affect whether or not employees and line managers have open and supportive conversations. Employers should take the key steps below to better support employees. This will demonstrate that the organisation accepts that mental health is an important issue and emphasise its commitment to promoting positive mental health.
Developing line mangers’ people management skills
Good line management can help manage and prevent stress which can be linked to common mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. Managers who provide clear objectives, feedback and support to their staff and proactively manage conflict when it occurs can help to create positive working environments which foster employee well-being and resilience. Our guide Managing for sustainable employee engagement highlights research showing the behaviours managers need to exhibit to engage staff and prevent burnout.
Spotting early signs of mental health issues
Employers and managers should be alert to the early signs of mental ill health and how to respond, and signpost to support services. Early intervention can help prevent issues from escalating, but employers should not give advice about a mental health issue as they are rarely qualified to do so. The websites of Mind and Rethink Mental Illness give information on potential signs of mental ill health.
Signposting to support
Empathy and listening are important skills for managers dealing with a mental health issue; recommending a chat with a GP could be a useful step. A fit note enables the GP to advise on the effects of the mental health condition and any changes the employer could make to help the individual return to work. Various mental health charities (see Useful contacts) also provide helpful resources for individuals, carers and employers. See more in our factsheet covering sickness-related absence.
Increasing awareness of how to access employer-funded support
Employers who offer an employee assistance programme or counselling services should ensure employees know how to access them.
Training for line managers in managing and supporting mental health in the workplace
Training for line managers will help them to spot the early warning signs of potential issues and enhance their confidence to have an effective conversation with employees who may be experiencing a mental health issue. Managing and supporting mental health at work: disclosure tools for managers, produced by Mind and the CIPD, contains practical advice and templates to help managers facilitate conversations about stress and mental health.
Review job design and workloads
Our research shows that workload is the main cause of work-related stress: providing meaningful work and development opportunities helps employees to feel engaged and satisfied at work which in turn can have a positive impact on their mental health. Employers should monitor workloads and deadlines to ensure people aren’t feeling under excessive pressure. See our factsheet on job design.
Promote awareness of mental health issues across the workforce
Promoting awareness about mental health can help to reduce the stigma, and replace common myths with facts. The Time to Change Employer Pledge, which we have signed, provides a framework to help organisations to implement an action plan to foster a mentally healthy workplace.
Promote work-life balance
Long-hours working is not a sustainable way of operating and will take its toll on people. Striking the appropriate balance between work and personal life means people remain refreshed and productive. See our factsheet on working hours.
Offer flexible working
Although not possible in all job roles, flexible working can reap dividends for both employee and employer. People will be better able to balance the demands on them from different aspects of their life, such as caring responsibilities, and be more focused and productive when in work. See our factsheet on flexible working.
Making mental health a part of wider well-being at work
A well-being policy should cover both physical and mental health, and:
- begin with a clear statement which commits the organisation to developing a working environment that promotes employee health and well-being
- be championed by senior management
- be kept under constant review, together with other policies, procedures and initiatives to ensure that they optimise employee well-being
- outline how staff feedback will be sought
- identify key well-being indicators
- set out the available advice, support and training to enhance employee well-being
- incorporate the process for evaluating the effectiveness of all well-being initiatives.
Although it’s useful to have a broad policy which demonstrates the organisation’s commitment to supporting staff well-being, members of staff must be treated as an individuals as they will have varying needs and require different support. Find out more in our factsheet on well-being at work.
Due to fear of discrimination, or for other personal reasons, potential employees may disclose a mental health issue in their application or at the interview stage. The organisation should:
- make clear, at the recruitment stage, that it's willing to make reasonable adjustments for applicants and that this policy includes people with a mental health problem
- ensure all employees understand the concept of adjustment within the organisation's equal opportunities policy.
When drawing up the job description and person specification, care should be taken to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate people with a mental health issue. Steps should be taken to:
- distinguish between essential and desirable requirements for the job and focus on what is to be achieved rather than how.
- ensure that the mental or emotional elements are identified, specifically the ability to meet set work schedules.
As someone with a mental health issue may not have attended an interview for some time, the organisation should:
- permit an applicant to be accompanied and/or to have additional time to undertake an ability test
- appreciate perceived ‘deficiencies’ due to a mental health issue, such as gaps in employment history
- provide the appropriate environment to try to ensure an applicant is able to demonstrate fully their ability to do the job.
Adjustments at work
Employees need to have an open and honest conversation with the employer about how their mental health condition impacts their work and what adjustments could help. An employee's manager will need to know that there is a disability (if one has been disclosed) and the nature of the adjustment required, but colleagues should not be told the medical reason behind any decisions.
Some examples of more typical workplace adjustments for line managers and employees to explore and agree together include adjustments to working hours or patterns, temporary part-time hours, working from home, job sharing, minimising noise or providing a quiet working space, or increasing frequency of supervision,. It is wise to document the reasonable adjustments that have been agreed.
Clinical and professional advice
As with physical disability, there will be occasions when specialist advice is needed to help someone with a mental health issue. Having a procedure in place will increase managers’ confidence about the appropriate course of action and when to signpost to specialist sources of expert support, in consultation with occupational health if available.
Useful contacts and further reading
Books and reports
ACAS. (2017) Promoting positive mental health at work. Advisory booklet. London: Acas.
SHIFT. (2007) Line managers’ resource: a practical guide to managing and supporting people with mental health problems in the workplace. London: Department of Health and Health and Safety Executive.
BELL, M. (2015) Mental health at work and the duty to make reasonable adjustments. Industrial Law Journal. Vol 44, No 2, July. pp194-221.
DONALDSON-FEILDER, E. and LEWIS, R. (2016) Taking the lead on mental health: the role of leaders and line managers. Occupational Health & Wellbeing. Vol 68, No 7, July. pp16-17.
ROBERTSON-HART, S. (2014) Mental health: returning to work. Occupational Health. Vol 66, No 3, March. pp24-25.
CIPD members can use our online journals to find articles from over 300 journal titles relevant to HR.
Members and People Management subscribers can see articles on the People Management website.
This factsheet was last updated by Lisa Ayling, solicitor and employment law specialist, and by Rachel Suff.
Rachel Suff: Employee Relations Adviser
Rachel joined the CIPD as a policy adviser in 2014 to increase the CIPD’s public policy profile and engage with politicians, civil servants, policy-makers and commentators to champion better work and working lives. An important part of her role is to ensure that the views of the profession inform CIPD policy thinking in ER areas such as health and well-being, employee engagement and employment relations.
As well as developing policy on UK employment issues, she helps guide the CIPD’s thinking in relation to European developments affecting the world of work. Rachel is a qualified HR practitioner and researcher; her prior roles include working as a researcher/editor for XpertHR and as a senior policy adviser at Acas.
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