How to change the way people think and talk about mental health problems at work…

13th May 2019

It is staggering to think that one in four people experience mental health problems, yet there is still a stigma around how we think and talk about mental illness. It seems across the board from school classrooms and universities to businesses we have no idea on how to consistently do this sensitively and successfully.

Mental health problems are associated with huge economic costs for society in terms of healthcare provision and lost employment. A report by the Mental Health Foundation says that people who are at work and are experiencing or have had mental health problems can add as much as £225 billion per year to the economy.

For businesses not to be talking about and supporting mental health in the workplace, just doesn’t make business sense. Especially since workplaces with high levels of mental well-being are more productive.

We have so much to be thankful for when it comes to modern life, but one of the unfortunate sequelaes is a huge rise in stress and anxiety amongst young adults. Mental health and how we think and talk about it at work and in society needs to change if we are to support our young people and make schools, universities and businesses inclusive and supportive places to study and work.

In this article, I’ll be putting the spotlight on how we can change the way we think and talk about mental health at work. Let’s start with what mental health (and mental ill health) is. Then I’ll take a look at the role of employers and the things that can be done to change how we think and talk about mental health in the work environment.

What is mental health and mental ill health?

Mental health refers to our emotional, psychological and social well-being. It defines how we think, feel and react and relate to others, and how we manage and cope with stress in everyday life. Mental ill health, according to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) can range from “feeling ‘a bit down’ to common disorders such as anxiety and depression to more severe and far less common conditions such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.”

Employers need to do more

Tom Oxley in his Ted Talk on Workplace Mental Health (well worth watching – you’ll find the link below) reveals that mental illness is responsible for 30 per cent more absence from work than anything else, including musculoskeletal and physical injury.

According to mental health charity MIND, right now 1 in 6 people at work are experiencing anxiety, depression or stress. The latest figures released by HSE (Health & Safety Executive) reveal that work-related stress accounts for 40 per cent of all work-related illness.

Employers have a legal obligation to protect the health and safety of employees at work, but many organisations perform poorly when it comes to supporting mental health. Implementing a health and well-being policy in the workplace is vital, and that should include supporting mental health.

Employers need to recognise that we bring our whole selves to work. Situations outside of the workplace could be causing someone to feel stressed at work as much as things going on at work. It’s not always easy to hang up emotions with your coat when you arrive at work. The key is in spotting when a member of staff is experiencing stress and not make assumptions about whether or not they should be feeling the way they do.

Line manager responsibilities

Pro-active support for employees experiencing mental health issues starts with effective and compassionate line management. Managers should be trained to spot the signs of stress and be prepared to help and support any of their team members experiencing mental health problems.

Leaders and managers should support employees experiencing or recovering from a mental health problem and make adjustments to workload to help them thrive and make a positive contribution to the business.See the Mind guide on how to support staff who are experiencing a mental health problem here.

Silence isn’t golden

In most cases, it’s not the fact that we are using the wrong words to describe mental health, but more that we aren’t talking at all. In the main, people find it extremely difficult to talk openly about mental illness, either as a sufferer, a friend, a family member, or a colleague or acquaintance who knows someone with a mental health problem.

Lestyn’s story publicised by Time to Change illustrates how people try to cover up mental instability and how it actually makes things worse. Speaking out isn’t easy, but it is the first step to recovery. Employers need to understand this better and provide opportunities for employees to share anxieties and vulnerability without being judged.

Spreading knowledge in the workplace about mental health is the first step to changing the way people think about it. In a workplace environment where people feel afraid to speak out about how they are feeling, mental health will undoubtedly suffer. That isn’t good for the individual or the business.

Mental Health First Aiders

No matter how open you are as a boss about mental health, some people will find it hard to speak up when they are experiencing stress, anxiety, depression or worse. Training selected employees to be Mental Health First Aiders at work is a brilliant way to embrace a more open culture about mental health and show that as an employer you are taking mental health more seriously.

So, what is Mental Health First Aid? A Mental Health First Aider is someone who recognises the signs and symptoms of mental health and can offer guidance and support.

Most mental ill health comes on gradually, and many people hide mental health problems for a long time, so if someone is trained to spot the signs and symptoms early on, more can be done to offer guidance to get the right help and support them at work. Early intervention could prevent a more serious problem developing and avoid a situation where someone is off work for longer. To support someone with mental health problems requires a certain type of person and carefully selected words. It’s why Mental Health First Aid is so important. Mental Health First Aid England (MHFA) offer courses to learn practical mental health skills and awareness for organisations.

The future

Mental health issues have a significant impact on employee well-being and ultimately business success. Removing stigma and improving understanding about mental ill health, spotting the signs, making adjustments to work schedules and offering support are some of the things employers should be doing to build a more open and inclusive business culture.

Having a mental health policy will ultimately enhance employee engagement and support business growth. Robust health and well-being policies will ultimately define the successful businesses of the future. A focus on mental well-being at work doesn’t just benefit business. It has a positive far-reaching effect on society as well.


This article about “How to change the way people think and talk about mental health at work” was written for Housing Hand – the Award-Winning UK Rent Guarantor Service by Annie Button. For more information on how you can work with Housing Hand, visit housinghand.co.uk or call 02072052625 and select option 2.