mental health dayThe topics of anxiety and depression are often taboo in the workplace, but thanks to the well publicized ‘Mental Health Day’ on October 10th, we’ve decided to take action.

A Business in the Community (BITC) report, released to coincide with the event, highlights just how uncomfortable we still feel talking about mental health at work. It’s estimated that even though 77% of employees have experienced symptoms of poor mental health at some time (with work often a contributing factor) – very few (11%) felt comfortable discussing the problem with their manager, and only a quarter felt able to talk to a colleague or to HR.

A ‘culture of silence’ still prevails, compounded by the fact that there is often a disconnect between actions meant to support employee well-being – and what actually happens. Lack of knowledge (and fear of getting it wrong)  on people management is at the root of the problem. Line managers simply don’t know what they should do if faced with an employee experiencing mental health issues, and colleagues are often afraid to approach someone they are concerned about in case they are seen as ‘interfering’ or treading on personal territory.

BITC has urged employers to build more open cultures where mental health issues can be talked about, and in particular to provide more training, information and support for both employees and managers. “Progress will only happen when employers approach mental health as they would physical health – doing what they can to prevent bad health occurring or escalating, and ensuring support for employees when it happens,” says Louise Aston, Well-being Director at BITC, quoted in this week’s People Management.

The BITC report suggests employers need to take the following three steps to improve the way they manage mental health in the workplace:

1. Talk

Getting the subject of mental ill health out in the open is a key first step. Leaders need to act as role models, actively challenging some of the myths that exist around the topic and talking openly about their own experiences. There are already some sector specific initiatives leading the way on this front. People Management magazine, for example, has recently launched an ‘End the Stigma’ campaign, which encourages HR practitioners to open up and share their own experiences of mental health conditions.

BITC also has a useful guide, ‘Listen Up: Let’s Talk Mental Health’, which includes practical tips for employees on how to start a conversation with someone they are worried about and how to talk about their own mental health. Volunteer well-being champions can also help to ‘normalise’ conversations about mental health in the business – acting as ambassadors by raising awareness, sharing information and promoting positive messages.

2. Train

Line managers generally accept that employee well-being is party of their duty (76% in the BITC survey agreed it was their responsibility). However, only 22 % have had any form of training on mental health at work. The report suggests that, sadly, the default position when presented with an employee with mental health issues is to arrange time off or suggest a change of job – neither of which are necessarily the right response.

Line managers need training to raise their awareness of common mental health conditions, help them spot the symptoms and know how to talk to employees about their well-being. Managers also need to be well versed in the support that is available either inside or outside the organisation and to understand how when appropriate, they can make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to roles for those suffering from poor mental health.

3. Take Action

Employers are encouraged to sign the ‘Time to Change’ employer pledge – a campaign put together by charities MIND and Rethink Mental Illness to help organisations develop action plans to improve employee mental health. BITC also provides a mental health toolkit with ideas and resources to help organizations build open and supportive cultures. Employers can also take action to identify if there is a disconnect in the business between intention and action – by asking staff for feedback through surveys, focus groups or employee forums.

There are some great examples of organizations who have taken positive action. A recent Training Zone article reports on how Asda has created a wellness hub at its head office in Leeds, including a quiet area people can use if they need to take time out, private consultation rooms where staff can talk with occupational health professionals and signposting to sources of further help and support.

For more information about the report and resources available, visit

Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.