Mental health issues harming employees’ career prospects, study warns

Experts call on organisations not to discriminate against staff struggling with their psychological wellbeing

One in four employees with a mental health condition are seeing their careers suffer as a result of not getting the same opportunities to progress as colleagues, according to research.

A poll of 10,000 UK employees and employers, conducted by Hays, found 24 per cent of staff with mental health problems claimed they were being blocked from progressing in their careers, while 12 per cent said this lowered their chances of being selected for a job.

Jolawn Victor, chief international officer at Headspace, said the research highlighted the need for employers to “demonstrate compassion towards those who [were] struggling with their mental health and provide them with meaningful support”.

“They must treat everyone equally – regardless of their psychological condition – and have an open dialogue, actively encouraging employees to share their feelings and reassuring them that they will always be supported,” she said.

This was echoed by Sophie Wingfield, director of policy at the Recruitment & Employment Confederation. “Individuals must have faith that they have a genuine chance to progress in work and not be held back by a disability, either visible or invisible,” she said. Recruiters could help employers by making sure people with experience of mental health difficulties were not excluded, she added.

Laura Peters, head of advice and information services at Mental Health UK, said employers and HR teams needed to focus on creating an environment that truly supported wellbeing. Flexible hours, wellbeing plans and mental health training were “small steps that employers can take to ensure that everyone feels supported at work and can perform to the best of their ability", she said.

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This was more important than ever during the current climate, added Rachel Suff, senior employment relations adviser at the CIPD. “At a time when many people's mental health can be under strain because of the continuing pandemic and economic crisis, it's vital that all employers are proactive in tackling the stigma about mental health at work,” she said.

Louise Aston, wellbeing director at Business in the Community, said the “lingering stigma” around mental health should not be a career killer. “Mental health conditions are not a rarity: every day, millions of employees manage them or work alongside colleagues who are managing their own,” she said.

The survey, released ahead of World Mental Health Day on 10 October and conducted between August and September this year, found 23 per cent of employee respondents overall had previously had or were at the time dealing with a mental health condition. 

This was most acute among younger workers, with 28 per cent of those aged under 25 disclosing mental health problems, compared to 20 per cent of those 55 or older.

Women were also more likely than men to have or have had a mental health issue (27 per cent compared to 18 per cent).

The Hays findings followed a recent poll of 1,500 UK employees by TalkOut, which found more than half (56 per cent) hadn’t received any mental health advice or support from their employer since the pandemic hit earlier this year.

This was despite more than a third (35 per cent) reporting worse mental health compared to before the crisis, more than two-thirds (68 per cent) feeling anxious and apprehensive about returning to work, and half (51 per cent) feeling uncertain about the future of their job.