Employees still scared to open up about mental health, says survey

Many managers unaware how to handle issues of mental wellbeing, amid calls for greater support and education

More than three-quarters of managers believe businesses lack key support and education around mental wellbeing in the workplace, as new research reveals one in five employees with mental health problems worry that telling their employer could jeopardise their career. 

A poll of 2,009 UK employees and managers found that 56 per cent of employees had at some point struggled with their mental health or wellbeing and, of these, 80 per cent said it had impacted on their work.

However, more than two-thirds (67 per cent) admitted they did not tell their employer about their mental ill-health. This was because they were too embarrassed (23 per cent), they didn’t think their employer could help (24 per cent) or they feared it would harm their career (19 per cent).

The research, conducted by Opinium in partnership with the University of Warwick, also found that managers wanted more support from their organisations when it came to helping staff with mental health problems.

Only two-thirds (66 per cent) of managers surveyed said they would know what to do if an employee directly told them they were struggling with their mental health or wellbeing, while 49 per cent said they did not know how to support mental health and wellbeing more generally in the workplace.

As a result, 77 per cent of managers said businesses needed more support and education around mental wellbeing in the workplace to help those struggling.

Sophie Holland, senior research executive at Opinium, said there were still “significant” barriers preventing employees from talking about their mental health with their employers, and called on businesses to change this dynamic. “Culture is key here – employers need to work to create safe spaces where their employees feel comfortable talking about mental health and wellbeing, both good and bad experiences, allowing employees to bring their full selves to work,” Holland said.

Louise Aston, wellbeing director for Business in the Community, told People Management the research highlighted the role of effective leadership in embedding employee wellbeing into organisational culture. “It’s about embedding mental health in the DNA of an organisation and positioning it in the boardroom where there should be more conversations around accountability and management,” Aston said.

“We know what gets measured and monitored gets acted on within businesses, and we need to shift that conversation on to mental health in work.”

Aston added that businesses should include wellbeing competencies in their assessments of line managers as this would give them the skills to foster a culture where mental health is “talked about like it is business as usual”. 

The research also found that only a third (36 per cent) of those who struggled with their mental wellbeing in the last 12 months took time off work, with the most common reasons for not taking time off being that they wanted to keep their problems to themselves (30 per cent), they did not believe mental health was a ‘valid reason’ for time off (28 per cent) and they did not think their employer would understand (25 per cent). 

Rachel Suff, senior policy adviser for employment relations at the CIPD, said HR had a critical role to play in encouraging people to take time off to recover from mental ill-health. “We know from previous feedback and research that many people with mental ill-health don’t want to put that down when filling in sickness absence forms – they may give another reason or skirt around it,” Suff said. “But this doesn’t help the individual or the business because then the organisation can’t support them or their return to work in a healthy way.”

The Opinium research found that 54 per cent of workers who decided to take time off work to recover from mental ill-health reported feeling pressured to come back to work early. 

Suff said it was down to HR to develop clear guidance and policies around sickness absence and communicate the importance of taking time off to recover from mental ill-health as you might do with a physical illness. 

She added that by checking in with workers and having open and honest conversations with their teams regularly, line managers could “lay the groundwork” for people to feel open in taking time off work to recover from mental ill-health.