Majority of managers say they have put company interest above staff wellbeing

Experts call for ‘profound cultural shift’ to combat poor mental health in the workplace

A majority of managers in the UK have admitted to putting their company’s interests above the wellbeing of their staff, new research has found, leading to calls for employers to better acknowledge and support workers with poor mental health.

In a poll of 4,000 UK workers, conducted by Business in the Community (BITC) and YouGov, 62 per cent of managers reported that they have had to put the company ahead of employee wellbeing.

The survey also found that while half (51 per cent) of board-level staff believed their organisations effectively supported wellbeing, that opinion was only shared by 39 per cent of non-management employees.

Across all levels of management, nearly two in five (39 per cent) UK workers reported experiencing poor mental health associated with work last year, and 9 per cent of those who disclosed a mental health issue to an employer said they were subject to disciplinary action, demotion or dismissal.

Louise Aston, wellbeing campaign director at BITC, said a “profound cultural shift” was needed so that work enhanced rather than harmed mental health. “People who come to work don’t expect to be physically injured and they should also not expect to be psychologically harmed,” she said.

“Too many employers are tinkering at the edges of change rather than making the fundamental differences that are really needed to improve their employees’ mental health.”

Professor Sir Cary Cooper, CIPD president, said that while many companies wanted to take high-level action to improve wellbeing, too many simply went for the low-hanging fruit. “They do mindfulness at lunch, diet or exercise, or mental health first aid, but it is not really strategically done,” he said.

“All the evidence shows you need to train and select line managers for social or emotional intelligence. We're not seeing that kind of thing going on.” 

Ann Francke, CEO of the Chartered Management Institute, said line managers played an “absolutely critical role” in supporting employees’ mental health, but they needed to be “equipped and empowered” to do this. “In too many cases, managers are not receiving the training they need to be effective in supporting their teams,” she said.

In the survey found almost half (48 per cent) of line managers said they were not assessed on their ability to handle staff wellbeing, and 70 per cent reported barriers to providing mental health support.

These included not having enough time for one-to-one management and being required to prioritise performance targets, both of which were cited as problems in effectively supporting employee wellbeing by 22 per cent of managers.

While 75 per cent of managers said they would feel very confident supporting someone who was dealing with work-related stress, more than a third said they would not feel confident supporting someone dealing with panic attacks or depression (35 and 33 per cent respectively).  

The most common work-related cause of poor mental health was pressure, with 52 per cent of workers saying too many priorities or targets affected their wellbeing.

Workload negatively impacted on the wellbeing of 36 per cent of survey respondents, while negative relationships with colleagues and a lack of trust with their line manager led to mental health symptoms for 33 per cent of workers. 

Mental health in the workplace was also more of a problem for certain minority groups: 79 per cent of LGBT+ people reported work-related mental health symptoms, compared with 39 per cent of workers overall. And while a majority (53 per cent) with a white ethnic background reported feeling comfortable talking about their mental health issues, only 40 per cent of workers from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds felt the same.