Worrying new research from Mind, released to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week, shows that employees are still finding it difficult to talk openly about mental health at work.

A survey of almost 44,000 employees found that 48 per cent had experienced poor mental health (such as stress, low mood and anxiety) while working at their current organisation. Of those, only half chose to tell their manager about their difficulties. More than 8 in 10 people said they would continue to go into work while experiencing poor mental health, with 42 per cent believing their manager would be unable to spot the signs they were struggling.

It’s not hard to understand why this culture of silence prevails, despite numerous high-profile campaigns in recent years designed to raise awareness of mental health issues. Many employees still fear that if they disclose a mental health issue, it will have a damaging effect on their career prospects or that their employer may think they are incapable of doing their job properly.

Given that one in four of us will experience poor mental health at some point in our lives, it’s an issue employers cannot afford to ignore. The problem can be particularly pressing in an SME, where there are less people around to manage the workload and managers need to strike a delicate balance between supporting employees while also making sure the team delivers – and staying on the right side of the law.

So what can HR do to create a culture where mental health is not a taboo subject and managers are supported in dealing with employees who may be experiencing difficulties?

Bring dialogue back into the business

In an age of email, instant messaging and social media, it sometimes feels as if we have forgotten how to just sit down and talk to each other. Managers need to encourage a culture of open, honest dialogue within their teams. It’s about not being afraid to show a human side, making yourself available and approachable and getting to know people on a more personal level. HR can help to encourage this approach by role modelling appropriate behaviours themselves and equipping managers throughout the business to deal with sensitive or difficult conversations. If employees feel they are able to talk openly with their manager and within their team, they are much more likely to seek support if they are struggling with a mental health issue.

Include mental health in wellbeing programmes

Corporate wellness programmes often have a strong emphasis on the physical. But while healthy eating and fitness initiatives are key, it’s equally important to include mental health. Some ideas might include raising awareness and improving understanding about mental health through lunchtime talks and providing links to useful content and resources. Some organisations have also established a network of mental health champions within the business or have provided training in mental health first aid.

Provide support for managers

Don’t assume that managers will automatically know how to handle a situation where an employee is struggling with a mental health issue – or know your legal 0bligations as an employer. Many won’t know what to do – and will be frightened that by wading in they could potentially make the situation worse. Make sure managers know how to spot the signs when the kind of work related stress we all occasionally suffer is tipping over into something more serious – and who to turn to for more advice.

Manage workload expectations

In an increasingly complex and competitive world, organisations are expecting more from employees than ever before. It is important to understand the difference, however, between stretching people so that they can do their best work and pushing them into strain and overload. HR needs to work with managers to ensure they are setting realistic goals and targets and are not putting their people under unacceptable levels of pressure. It’s about supporting managers in organising work, making best use of their resources and making sure the business is exploiting the technology that’s now available in everything from HR to CRM to take away some of the strain.

Benchmark practice and progress

Mind is encouraging organisations to sign up for its Workplace Wellbeing Index – a benchmarking tool that can help them identify how well they are doing and which areas need further action when it comes to promoting good mental health at work. Mind also offers free resources for employers to help improve mental wellbeing and employee engagement. For more information, visit www.mind.org.uk/work


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.