Workers too scared to discuss mental health in the workplace

A recent survey of 400 workers in the UK carried out on behalf of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) found that 80 per cent would not discuss mental health issues with their line manager due to the fear of being stigmatised within the workplace.

Twenty five per cent of those surveyed said that they would be more comfortable discussing such issues with a colleague rather than their manager. The survey also found that line managers felt that they did not have sufficient support themselves to have discussions regarding mental health with their direct reports, with only 31 per cent of those surveyed feeling that they had received sufficient training to recognise the symptoms of poor mental wellbeing in their teams.

Such findings are a significant cause for concern. Mental health problems are said to affect one in six British workers each year with mental health being the leading cause of sickness absence. ‘How to implement the Thriving at Work mental health standards in your workplace’ a report published by mental health charity Mind in 2018 put the annual cost to employers of poor mental health at between £33billion and £44billion per year.

In Mental Health Awareness Week 2019 there is much media attention being paid to the beneficial impact of talking about mental health. Whilst this message may be sinking in within personal relationships, the perceived stigma attaching to mental ill health within the workplace would appear to persist.

Employers should be aware of this issue and take steps to break down the stigma, encouraging open discussion of mental health issues throughout the workplace. This has been demonstrated to have beneficial consequences in terms of a healthier workforce resulting in reduced levels of sickness absence, increased productivity and improved employee retention. There is also a reduction in potential risk exposure.

Employers are under a duty of care in relation to an employee’s mental as well as physical health within the workplace, in particular in relation to work related stress. If an employee is reluctant to discuss with their employer symptoms of stress or other mental health conditions (whether or not connected with work) an employer may not have the opportunity to put measures in place to support them. This, combined with the obligation to make reasonable adjustments to working practices to help disabled job applicants and employees imposed by the Equality Act 2010 means that turning a blind eye to mental health challenges within the workplace is not an advisable course of action. Failure to make reasonable adjustments may amount to unlawful discrimination towards an employee who is considered to be disabled as a result of a mental impairment.

Potential ways to challenge the stigma around conversations regarding mental wellbeing in the workplace include:

Improve mental health awareness: Providing employees with reliable information about potential causes of mental health issues and ways in which self care and other coping mechanisms can help is one of the most effective ways of reducing stigma around these issues.

Talk about mental health: There is plenty of evidence that the more mental health and wellbeing is discussed the better.

Share your experience: Around 15 per cent of people at work have symptoms of an existing mental health condition. If some of those people are willing to share their stories with their colleagues understanding will be improved and attitudes changed. Inevitably people will follow behaviour demonstrated by their leaders and so those in management positions can have the most impact in this area.

Support colleagues: Mental health programmes and policies designed to improve mental wellbeing, for example promoting an effective work-life balance, encouraging a degree of physical activity and healthy eating have all been shown to help in this area as does demonstrating support for colleagues who are experiencing mental ill health.

Recruit Mental Health Champions: Self appointed employees at any level of an organisation who have received a level of training and who are available to discuss any mental health issues brought to them can help challenge stigma and change the portrayal of mental health in the workplace.

It is clear from the IOSH survey and the Mind report on Thriving at Work that training for line managers in having what can be uncomfortable conversations regarding mental health challenges is the most effective step which an employer can take towards breaking down the stigma around mental health in the workplace. Establishing clear lines of communication which can lead to a more positive approach to mental health and wellbeing will be in the best interests of both the employee and the employer.

There are many resources aimed at employers looking to learn more and improve their approach to mental health and wellbeing at


Interested in workplace wellbeing and mental health? We recommend the Workplace Wellbeing and Stress Forum 2019 and Mental Health Awareness training day.





Clare Waller is an employment partner at Hewitsons and advises employers of all sizes and industries as well as senior executives in relation to both contentious and non contentious aspects of employment law.