World Mental Health Day: Raising both Awareness and Action at Work

Blog posts

9 Oct 2019

Zofia Bajorek

Zofia Bajorek, Research Fellow 

I have to confess that on Saturday night I missed the ‘big event’ that kept everyone in suspense of finding out who won the coveted Britain’s Got Talent: The Champions final (Spoiler Alert, it was Twist and Pulse).  However great the victory may have been for Twist and Pulse, headlines about the broadcast were focussing on something else – the one minute gap in the nail-biting proceedings to launch the ‘Britain Get Talking’ campaign – an initiative to promote ‘mental wellness’ with the goal of getting 10 million people to take action to improve their mental and physical health by 2023.

The message is simple and effective – we all need to take steps to help maintain mental wellness, and this includes time away from distractions (social media being a massive one) to have regular conversations with friends and family.

As great as this focus on mental health is, such interventions are not new, and will only work if actioned effectively.  Additionally, we may feel comfortable talking about our mental health with our friends and family – but how many of us feel comfortable talking about this issue at work?

Stigma around mental health is still a significant workplace barrier.  I have often had friends tell me that they are asked ‘How are you feeling today?’, but feel they must just respond with ‘I’m fine’, when all they really want to do is cry out ‘I feel rubbish, I feel overwhelmed with the work I have to do, the lack of support I have to do it, and on top of work, things are falling apart at home.’  Knowing that I work in the ‘wellbeing at work’ field, they follow this up with: ‘Just what can be done to help this?’

Let’s just have a brief read of some of the latest stats:

  • 30% of the UK workforce have been formally diagnosed with a mental health condition as some point in their lifetime
  • 2 in 5 employees report experiencing poor mental health symptoms related to work in the last year, 23% in the last month
  • 52% of those who experience mental health problems related to work say this is due to pressure such as too many targets or priorities
  • 70% of managers say there are barriers to them providing mental health support
  • Only 11% of managers in the UK have received training on understanding workplace stressors
  • 41% of employee experiencing a mental health problem reported that there had been no resulting changes in or actions taken in the workplace

This really does get me thinking about what actions employers and HR can implement to help those who may be struggling with mental health at work.  I have lost count of the number of conference presentations where I have heard the phrase ‘our staff really are our greatest asset, and they mean so much to us’ – and when asked about the actions undertaken to improve wellbeing, ‘fruit bowls’ seem to be panacea (and this makes me squirm uncomfortably in my seat).  But, the evidence base around a lot of mental health interventions is quite poor, or non-existent (which makes it difficult for well-intentioned employers to know what is ‘right’ to do) – and we may be reaching a tipping point where stigma is reducing but we still do not have the interventions in place for prevention.

For example, my colleagues Stephan Bevan and Sally Wilson recently reflected on the rise in popularity of Mental Health First Aid, without the evidence behind its applicability to the workplace, and its long-term effect.  Research undertaken on Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) has highlighted anecdotal evidence of their effectiveness but due to their limited promotion and uptake in organisations, the impact they can have on mental health outcomes is also questioned.  Finally, research conducted for NICE by IES highlighted very few studies that evaluated workplace wellbeing interventions, but it did report that the ability of the line manager was important for employee wellbeing.

Ah yes…the line manager…the role where it may feel that you have to be just about everything to everyone; the role that is being squeezed from all directions, and if organisations are not careful a role where the line managers own wellbeing will come into question.  If line managers are viewed as vital for helping employee wellbeing, what does that mean for other organisational employees? And if an employee does not get on with their boss, just what do they do

This could be where initiatives like Britain Get Talking and ‘Time to Talk’ could fill a gap – to re-start the ‘conversation’; to raise the awareness among all colleagues of the importance of mental health and wellbeing at work, and to spread the action of signposting to relevant sources of help to everyone.  This movement of ‘speaking up’ may ease those previously scared to disclose a condition to open up, if they know that they will receive a human and empathetic response and not feel as they will be negatively affected to do so.  Although researchers know that issues such as job design, autonomy at work and fair work practices (among others) can also have a fundamental impact on employee mental health, taking the time to talk about mental health may at least be a start on the change journey for better outcomes.

So at some point this week, take the time out to have a cup of tea and chat away from your desk.  Ask someone how they are, and listen to the response.  Britain Get Talking – and let’s improve both the awareness and action towards mental health.  You really don’t know just how important that conversation could be.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.