Employees three times more likely to discuss physical ailments than mental ill-health

Experts warn against ‘hubris’ over progress already made, as survey finds just one in 10 workers is comfortable discussing mental health conditions

Employees are still three times more likely to discuss common physical ailments than mental health issues at work, a survey has found, with experts warning reticence over the topic will only exacerbate a lack of provision for mental health conditions. 

Research by Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England – launched to coincide with the start of Mental Health Awareness Week – found that just 14 per cent of employees felt they could talk about common mental health issues in the workplace, compared to 42 per cent who felt comfortable discussing physical problems.

The poll of 2,000 adult employees also found that just one in 10 workers felt comfortable speaking about issues including self-harm, psychosis, eating disorders and postnatal depression.

Simon Blake, CEO of MHFA England, said the results confirmed the scale of the challenge faced by businesses and individuals, and warned against any hubris over the progress already made.

Speaking to People Management, Blake said: “Because there’s been so much more information in public discourse, and because the Royal Family are supporting awareness around mental health, I think for some people it feels we’re a bit further down the line than we actually are. What this research reminds us is just how big that gap is.

“We are so far away from a society where people feel confident that they won’t be judged [for mental health problems] – which is why it’s really important that both line managers and mental health first aiders and others in organisations are able to have these conversations,” he added.

MHFA England’s research is part of its ‘Where’s Your Head At?’ campaign, encouraging businesses to sign up to the organisation’s workplace manifesto to make them more open to conversations about mental health.

The organisation is also encouraging businesses to train individuals to become mental health first aiders, enabling them to support colleagues going through episodes of mental ill-health.

One such mental health first aider, Mike Grey, a customer service specialist at Coventry Building Society, told People Management how his workplace was his main point of support when he was suffering from depression.

“The first time I experienced [depression], I went several months just trying to deal with it myself. And it was only thanks to my manager basically having a sit-down discussion with me, whereas everybody else was just saying ‘he’s a bit out of sorts’ and almost ignoring the problem,” he said.

“She sat down, had a very frank talk with me and it was only at that point I realised how bad it was and was then able to get help. The support I got at work was a bit of a watershed moment in my health.”

Grey added his work played a “massive part” in his recovery beyond the initial conversation with his manager, including access to a one-to-one counselling hotline and a variety of mental health toolkits. But he added: “Probably the biggest thing was just the general attitude towards it.

“One of the biggest barriers to people getting help with regards to mental health is quite frankly they’re terrified of the stigma attached to it. That initial response, allaying so many of those fears that had become so big in my mind, played a big part in me getting better.”

Grey is now part of Coventry Building Society's first cohort of mental health first aiders.

Today’s research from MHFA England is just one of several studies released at the start of Mental Health Awareness Week – which runs from 13 to 19 May – highlighting the stigma mental health problems still carry.

Separate research by Acas found that among 2,000 employed adults polled, two-thirds (66 per cent) had felt stressed or anxious over the past year, with workload cited as the most common reason (60 per cent).

Similarly, research from the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) found that 80 per cent of employees would not discuss their mental health with a line manager and 62 per cent of line managers didn’t get enough help from their employer in supporting the wellbeing of their staff.

“For me as an HR director, clearly the question is what do we need to do? What are we already doing? And how can we go about closing that gap?” said Blake. Support of the business leadership is critical for changes in attitude towards mental health, but well-trained line managers are also vital to ensuring any aspirations of change work their way through an organisation,” he added.

The other key issue is awareness. Like so many other people, Grey said he wasn’t aware of mental health issues or, crucially, the support that was available to him until he needed it personally. “A lot of this stuff, I only found out how valuable it was when it affected me.”