Most UK employees say they have experienced mental health issues because of work, yet over a million people face negative consequences after disclosing this to their employers.
That’s according to new research published by the charity Business in the Community (BITC), which found that three in five (60%) employees say they have experienced mental health issues because of their job.
The survey of more than 3,000 employees found that among those who had disclosed mental health issues to an employer, 15% faced dismissal, disciplinary action or demotion. This is up from 9% identified in similar research by BITC undertaken in 2016.
This could mean as many as 1.2 million people are negatively affected for disclosing mental health problems.
The new report has been published by the charity ahead of World Mental Health Day (10 October), the focus of which is workplace wellbeing.
Despite 53% of people stating that they feel comfortable talking about mental health at work, just 11% of those surveyed felt able to disclose a mental health issue to their line manager.
Of those, 15% said they had faced negative consequences as a result.
Matt, who has depression, anxiety and borderline personality disorder, says he had a “really bad experience at a former employer”, which had a negative impact on his mental health.
The 27-year-old, who declined to give his last name, is now much happier working as a primary school teaching assistant and lollipop man.
“In June 2015 I tried to take my own life, mostly due to stress and workload at work,” he said.
“We had lost several members of staff without them being replaced, but the trigger was an incident at work where I defended someone and came under attack. I challenged my senior manager when I knew he’d offended some colleagues and he replied with ‘I don’t care’.”
Matt said the incident set off a “cascade failure” which led to him being signed off work for his mental health.
“When I told that same manager I had been signed off due to stress he replied ‘no one else has a problem’. He even tried to convince me to resign,” Matt claimed.
With the help of ACAS (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) Matt took his company to employment tribunal, but settled before the first hearing.
“Part of me wishes I had my ‘day in court’ but by this point, months after I ended up on long-term sick and having my pay cut off, I needed the money,” he said.
“I went from taking 100+ phone calls a day, handling orders in excess of £1m to being unable to make or take phone calls and crying when trying to handle basic paperwork.”
The report identified that people around Matt’s age (aged 18-29) are more likely to have been formally diagnosed with a mental health condition (37%) than employees in their 50s (29%). However, they are less likely to disclose these concerns to their bosses than older workers.
Only a third of 18-29 year olds are comfortable talking with their managers about mental health compared to almost half of people in their 40s.
Black, Asian and minority ethnic employees are also less likely to feel comfortable talking about mental health at work (43%) compared to white employees (54%).
Women are more likely to report experiencing mental health issues related to work, with 64% reporting issues compared to 56% of men.
That said, mental health is one of the most difficult subjects to talk about at work across the board.
Out of the nine equality and social issues asked about in the survey, people are more comfortable talking about seven other issues - including race, age, physical health and religious beliefs - than mental health.
Denise Martin, a 50-year-old who lives in Bradley Stoke, works as a mental health nurse, but found it difficult to tell her employer she’d been diagnosed with Bipolar type II - a type of bipolar disorder characterised by having at least one episode of severe depression and symptoms of hypomania.
“My energy levels vary a lot, sometimes I can’t get out of bed because I’m so fatigued,” she explained.
“I get severe depression more often than mania and take antidepressants which I thinks help keep me reasonably well most of the time.
“Unfortunately just before Christmas I tried to go back to work too soon [after time off] and suffered an extreme relapse – the worse I’ve ever had – after just six weeks in the job.”
Denise was working part-time and ended up losing her job, but she didn’t tell her employer the reason behind her behaviour.
“I was ashamed and didn’t want to be seen as a burden. In terms of adjustments, I don’t think I’d really need that much. Just a listening ear every now and again,” she said.
“I can work really hard and really well when I’m well. It’s almost enough just to be open and know that people are aware. It doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to need loads of time off.”
Denise believes if companies did not have such stringent sick policies, and instead fostered mentally healthy workplaces, it would enable people to come forward when they need help and ultimately help employers retain staff.
In light of the survey results, and hearing stories from people like Matt and Denise, BITC is calling on employers to:
1) Talk – Break the culture of silence around mental health by signing up to the Time to Change Employers Pledge.
2) Train – Invest in basic mental health literacy for all employees and mental first aid training for line managers.
3) Take Action – Implement the practical guidance found in Business in the Community/Public Health England mental health employer tool kit and measure their progress using the free self-assessment tool.
The good news is the report also highlights some significant improvement in attitudes towards mental health in the workplace.
The majority (84%) of employers acknowledge that they have a responsibility towards their employees’ mental wellbeing and 91% of mangers agree that what they do affects the wellbeing of their staff.
Less than a quarter (24%) of managers have received any training in mental health, but half of line managers would welcome training on mental health conditions.
Matt said finding an employer who understands mental health has made a huge difference to his life.
“Even though I am so much better than when I attempted suicide, I will always suffer anxiety and depression linked to my condition [borderline personality disorder],” he said.
“Fortunately, my current employer recognises that, like everyone else, there are times when I won’t be 100%.
“I’ve taken a massive pay cut in my new job. I might be a lot poorer than when I worked in that office, but I am happier and physically healthier than ever before.”
Commenting on the research findings, Louise Aston, wellbeing director at BITC said: “Despite the increased prominence of mental health as a workplace issue it remains the elephant in the room that over a million people face serious repercussions for disclosing mental health issues to their employers.
“This report is an urgent call to action for collective leadership from employers to end this injustice and provide better support. It is time to challenge the myth that having a mental health issues equates to poor performance.
“We must equip managers with the knowledge and training to make the reasonable workplace adjustments that enable people to stay in work and thrive.”
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- Get Connected is a free advice service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org