Most employers ‘fail to meet basic standards’ in supporting employee mental health

Key obstacles for businesses are around practical action, rather than awareness, say experts

The majority of UK employers fail to meet basic standards when it comes to supporting their staff with mental health, a study released to coincide with Stress Awareness Month has revealed. 

Poor mental health is the most common reason for people to take time off work, costing businesses an estimated £10.6bn in sickness absence and £21.2bn in reduced productivity per year, according to NHS data. 

However, despite 93 per cent of employers considering workplace wellbeing to be an important business need, more than a third of companies do nothing to support the wellbeing of their staff, the new survey from independent charity Health@Work has shown. 

Dr Barbara Mariposa, associate of wellbeing network Work Well Being, told People Management that the two biggest causes of workplace absenteeism were musculoskeletal problems and stress, conditions that she said were linked to each other and to mental ill-health. 

“What many people don’t realise is that the biggest proportion of these issues are attributed to ‘presenteeism’ – turning up at work when you are ill, and/or underperforming because of stress, long hours, excessive workloads, lack of control and poor working relations,” she said. 

“All of these factors are precursors to mental ill-health, which has a massive cost at a personal level before we even talk about the costs to business.

“Low morale, more errors, reduced productivity, lack of trust, conflict, long-term absence, litigation, recruiting new staff – the list is long.” 

The news follows recent NHS analysis of 12 million GP-issued fit notes, which found that one in three were linked to mental or behavioural disorders. The number of workers signed off sick or placed under restricted duties because of stress or anxiety increased by 14 per cent between 2015-16 and 2016-17. 

More than half of employers said they would be likely to invest in workplace wellbeing in the future, but Charlotte Cross from the Better Health at Work Alliance told People Management that the key obstacles were around practical action, rather than awareness. 

“The obstacles facing organisations are less about awareness these days, and more about practicalities and the need to be bold. Increased knowledge of mental health challenges has not yet removed the stigma that surrounds them, so employers still find this a tricky area to engage with,” she said. 

A lack of dedicated staff for mental health was another issue for many organisations, as responsibilities for wellbeing initiatives were more likely to be assigned to existing employees, added Cross.

“Organisations struggle to identify who has the responsibility to implement change and wellbeing strategies and, once assigned, often those given the duty may already have an existing full workload, leading to wellness agendas being inadvertently ‘parked’,” Cross said.  

Experts told People Management that a key driver of inaction around mental health from employers was a lack of awareness of services that could help or assist with setting up dedicated programmes for supporting employee wellbeing. 

Matt Liggins, director of wellbeing at Health@Work, said it was important for employers to encourage “open conversation” about mental health in the workplace: “By acting as a critical friend for businesses and shaping how people think about workplace wellbeing – encouraging open conversations about all important aspects of health, including stress, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues – we can enable businesses to proactively address issues within their organisation to ensure a healthy culture and positive working environment.” 

James Harris, associate director of communications at Rethink Mental Illness, added: “Supporting mental health in the workplace is not only good for employees but for businesses too. It means that people can be more productive and less likely to need time off.

“Often, supporting mental health at work is much easier and cheaper than people realise. Initiatives like individual wellbeing plans, mental health training and flexi-time, for example, can go a long way to making your workplace more accommodating.”