THE BLOG

Mental Health Prejudice Rife in the Workplace

02/11/2014 19:00 GMT | Updated 02/01/2015 10:59 GMT

I want to ask you a question. Let's say a member of your team returns to work after breaking a leg or other physical ailment. Do you: a) tread on eggshells around them, b) ignore them altogether or c) ask them how they are?

Of course, you ask them how they are. It's a redundant question, right? But how does this scenario change when your colleague has returned to work having been off or recently treated for a mental health condition?

Perhaps you'd be surprised to know that according to research by Bupa, nearly half of UK business leaders admit to walking on eggshells around them and just over a fifth ignore them altogether.

We work in shiny buildings with cutting edge technology; we travel all over the globe for business and achieve extraordinary things every single day. It's a perfect picture of modernism and progress. Why then is the picture so very different when it comes to how leaders perceive and treat employees who have mental health conditions? This report shows we've got something very different to progress: we've got prejudice. Almost 95% of the leaders surveyed agreed this is the case in their organisation.

But it's not through a lack of trying. It seems that one of the problems is disparity between what leaders believe they are doing to tackle the issue and what workers are actually experiencing.

Seven out of 10 employees don't feel they can speak openly about mental health. Three-quarters of leaders believe they are offering the right help to their managers to support mental health in the workplace. However, half of employees say they've never been asked about depression, stress and anxiety. We can't skirt around these conditions, which, if untreated, can escalate to more serious health issues.

We come back to that word again: progress. The impact this is having on employees is huge. Just over half of employees who have had mental health issues believe they are less likely to get promoted, even though they feel they are still top performers. One in five employees who has experienced a mental health condition has felt under pressure to resign. You can see why the culture of silence around mental health is still so intact. It's a regressive situation.

The main thing I take from all of this is that employees are being reduced to being defined by their condition rather than their skills, experience and expertise. These don't disappear because of a mental health problem, much like they wouldn't if you broke your leg. With support, treatment and the right culture, those who experience mental health problems can and do recover and excel.

Yet those with mental health issues are often labelled erratic, unpredictable and weak. Sadly, because of fear, and a lack of understanding and compassion, over a third of leaders have seen employees be the victim of bullying because of their condition.

While the majority of leaders recognise the value and importance of a healthy workforce, sentiment isn't nearly enough. We've got to get closer to the ground and tackle the taboo around mental health. Leaders are so-named for a reason - to lead by example and bring about a critical change in culture and attitude.

There are some key ways they can do this. Leaders need to support their managers with training, enabling them to spot the signs and direct people to the help available. This means that employees can have easy and quick access to confidential help, helping them to return to peak performance sooner. And leaders themselves need to take immediate and practical action, and encourage people to speak up and seek help without fear.

This report comes at a time when mental health is in the public health spotlight too. The charity Mind released the report highlighting the difference in spending between preventing mental health problems and protecting physical health.

Compared to £108m spent on anti-obesity campaigns and £160m on smoking cessation, only £40m is spent on protecting mental health. Having read the report I was particularly dismayed to learn that mental health is filed under 'miscellaneous'.

Mental health - wellbeing and illness - isn't a vague or abstract entity, it's not the bogeyman. While it's not as tangible as flesh and bone, its effects are clearly visible and far-reaching. It begs the question, why isn't our health simply 'health'? Is there really any requirement to separate it into two camps - the physical and the mental? From where I'm standing, there's none whatsoever. They are both equally important to a person's wellbeing. The care, money and time put into them should be the same, by governments, corporations and one another. It's time we recognised that.