For the last few days, the Internet has been groaning under the weight of research around the issue of mental health at work.

  • Only 32 per cent of organisations train their line managers to support staff with poor mental health (CIPD)
  •  51 per cent of managers said they considered a worker who was mentally unwell to be a ‘liability’ (TalkOut)
  • Managers are more likely to have a diagnosed mental health problem than any other group of employees (Ipsos MORI/Teladco Health)
  • 62 per cent of managers said they have had to put the company ahead of employee wellbeing (Business in the Community)
  • 49 per cent of professionals believe they have unequal access to career progression opportunities because of their mental health (Hays)

Illustration of a brain inside a head being fixed

Organisations are clearly taking the issue seriously – with hundreds gathering for last week’s MAD World Summit, held on World Mental Health Day, and designed to bring together some of the latest thinking and best practice around tackling mental health at work.

And take it seriously they should. Figures show that mental ill-health is costing UK businesses more than £30 billion every year, with one in four people likely to experience a mental health issue at some time in their lives.

Of course, work isn’t the only factor in mental health – it’s a highly complex issue which can be influenced by many factors in people’s personal lives too. But with stress now the leading cause of sickness absence in the UK, it’s clear that what happens 9-5 is playing a major part.

There are many well-meaning organisational initiatives out there – lunchtime yoga sessions, meditation rooms, mindfulness sessions and healthy lifestyle programmes are now quite common in the workplace.

The problem, however, is that these are sticking plaster approaches, which are failing to get to the heart of the issue – which is the way we treat and manage people at work.

  • If we insist on constantly expecting employees to achieve ridiculously high amounts of output, while at the same time cutting the support and resources they need to do the job, people will continue to burn out.
  • If we continue to set targets which we know are unrealistic, or impose ‘fake’ deadlines because we want to ‘push people out of their comfort zone’, stress levels (and the sickness absence that goes with them) will continue to spiral.
  • If we fail to recognise that people have lives outside work, and often need flexibility to juggle conflicting demands and responsibilities, talented people will continue to crumble.

In other words, we need to stop treating people like machines and start treating them like human beings.

There are a few key things that need to change before this can happen:

  • Senior leaders need to walk the organisational talk. If the organisation wants to encourage open and supportive cultures, where people are not afraid to talk about issues like stress, anxiety and depression, those at the top need to stop putting on a mask and be prepared to show compassion and admit to their own vulnerabilities.
  • HR needs to support managers in understanding how best to organise work and resources in their teams. They need to know what a manageable workload looks like, to understand how more flexible working patterns can support productivity and customer service, and to be aware of how technological solutions can streamline work and cut down on unnecessary time-consuming processes. Sometimes, small measures, like letting people adjust their working hours so they don’t have the stress of travelling in the rush hour, can make a real difference.
  • Line managers need training in how to support employee mental health. They need to know how to spot the red flags that show someone is under pressure and needs help, they need the confidence to enter into open, transparent dialogue with their people, and the skills to manage conversations appropriately, and to know when an issue has gone beyond something they can personally deal with.

There is a wealth of support and resources out there to help with the latter – Mental Health First Aid England offers mental health champion courses as well as a range of online resources for line managers. Mind also has a whole range of training courses, as well as a joint guide with the CIPD on managing mental health at work. The Business Disability Forum has also launched a new guide to help managers have sensitive conversations at work.

World Mental Health Day has done a great job in raising awareness of the pressing need to tackle mental health at work. The challenge for organisations now is to take a step back and think about whether they are really getting to the root of the issue, and how they can maintain the momentum beyond this week.

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.