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26 May 2016

Mental health awareness in the workplace - how to address the £30 billion problem

In the last few years we have seen an increase in the number of claims being made by employees due to mental health issues. We are also aware that the costs associated with the provision of employee health benefits has increased in part due to the high cost of healthcare for those suffering from mental ill health. This is why we have chosen to partner with Maudsley Learning at Work for our seminar in September to increase our knowledge about the causes of mental ill health and to help us to promote ideas as to how the problems faced by all employers can be improved.

According to Mind, mental illness will affect one in four of us each year. OECD estimates that between 55% - 70% of those suffering from anxiety and depression are in work. The HSE statistics show that stress-related illnesses account for 35% of all work-related ill health problems and 43% of days lost in 2014/15. ACAS suggested that the cost of poor mental health to business amounts to £30 billion every year. These startling figures show this is a significant problem, and as there are no signs it is decreasing, accordingly the issue should be at the top of the business agenda when looking at ways to improve business performance.

In the last few years many celebrities have spoken publically about their own mental ill health and how it affects their ability to carry out day to day activities. Despite the action taken by people such as Stephen Fry, Ruby Wax and Sally Brompton (who sadly died recently) employees are more likely to keep silent about any mental health issues as they fear it will have an adverse impact on them. This fear is in part due to a lack of knowledge and misinformation about mental health issues. Many people function at a very high level despite suffering from depression, as Winston Churchill demonstrated

The single most important step for any business to take is to ensure it has a workplace culture which accepts that promoting good health in the workplace embraces the need for both good physical and mental health. Mental Health issues should be identified as early as possible to be able to take preventive action. This requires employees to be encouraged to seek help where there is a problem and for managers to be equipped to recognise changes, be sympathetic and be able to deal more effectively with issues as they arise.

There are many factors in the workplace that can contribute to poor mental health. These can include

  • work events, such as overwork
  • bad management
  • poorly managed organisational change
  • workplace bullying or harassment can exacerbate stress, anxiety or depression leading to serious ill health.

Employees may have an existing mental illness, which can be made worse by their working conditions. In many cases mental health issues may lead to the employee being disabled within the meaning of the Equality Act.  This will require employers to take proactive steps to ensure the business seeks to comply with its duty to make reasonable adjustments to enable the employee to work and to ensure that it does not face claims of disability discrimination.

Given the scale of the problem, promoting good mental health should be high on the agenda for all businesses. Everyone needs to be sensitive to the signs of stress or mental illness so that they can take appropriate action to protect themselves from harm. There are a number of measures employers can put in place to improve the response to mental health issues with the aim of reducing long-term sickness, the cost of medical care and to reduce the potential risks of claims. These steps include

  • Adopt a culture that promotes good mental health and introduce training to all employees, as well as managers, that is supportive of that culture and where possible ensure employees understand that there is no stigma attached to acknowledging that they are suffering from a mental health problem
  • Where problems are identified, help employees cope with work pressures by using accepted methods to support employees e.g. assertiveness training, mindfulness and where necessary modify work methods such as flexible working to assist employees to achieve a better work/life balance
  • Review your health and safety policy to ensure it addresses the particular issues arising in connection with mental health. Ensure that the person in the business charged with responsibility for delivering the outcomes of the stress policy is someone who will be seen as sufficiently senior to support and deliver the desired culture
  • Ensure all employees know what they can do if they are suffering from mental health problems and what support is available eg internal occupational health, external employee assistance programmes or telephone helplines
  • Review workplace conditions to gain early insight into the nature of the work undertaken so that problems are prevented. Where there are examples of health problems or where there are other indicators of problems as highlighted from exit interviews or high turnover rates, you can conduct a risk assessment to gain an understanding of the problem and possibly conduct a stress audit. This asks employees to talk about their concerns and where necessary how working conditions could be improved
  • Review policies currently in place such as those designed to promote equal opportunities and those designed to prevent bullying and harassment. Policies designed to allow employees to talk about problems such as grievance policies should try to avoid adversarial hearings and where appropriate be supportive of those with mental health issues, allowing them to present their concerns
  • Review employee benefits to identify what can be provided to employees to support them in work and what steps can be taken to control costs, so that the benefits are maintained and not lost due to excessive costs
  • Review the support given to employees who report mental health issues and who suffer from a disability to ensure that that appropriate action is taken to make any reasonable adjustments to their working conditions.

Understanding more about workforce mental health can improve organisational wellbeing, performance, increases productivity and reduces the cost of long-term absence. Employers will benefit significantly from putting mental health awareness on the agenda and it is not a matter they can afford to ignore.

We will be running a seminar with Maudsley Learning at Work to discuss this topic further.