Mental ill health increasingly taboo at work

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This week we published our latest research on mental health in the workplace. We initiated our surveys on this subject in 2006, with the aim of showing what more employers and society need to do to improve employment opportunities for people experiencing mental ill health. Since then there have been multiple campaigns around mental health in the workplace, the implementation of 2010 Equality Act and the government commissioned review of mental health in the workplace led by Lord Stevenson and Paul Farmer.

In light of this, when looking through the results of this study for the first time, I hoped, and somewhat excepted to see considerable positive improvements in employers’ attitudes towards mental health in the workplace. Now, there has been some progress. Employers are more understanding of mental health issues, and a greater proportion of them have tools, policies and procedures in place to support employees experiencing mental ill health.

However, our research also highlights an entrenching of the stigma that many employees experience due to their mental ill health. 56% of employers stated that they would be reluctant to recruit an individual with a mental health condition into their workplace due to attitudes from co-workers. This is a 5% increase from the survey results from 2009.

Very worryingly, there has been a further 17% decline in the number of respondents who would be flexible in offering adjustments or accommodations to someone with mental ill health, despite obligations enshrined in the 2010 Equality Act.

The number of employers taking the view that someone who has been off work for more than a few weeks is ‘unlikely to ever fully recover’ has also increased threefold, from 11% in 2009 to 38% in 2017. Furthermore, the proportion of employers disagreeing with this statement has fallen drastically, from 73% to 35%.

Sadly, mental health still remains the last workplace taboo and the stigma associated with mental health in the workplace seems to have grown significantly since 2009 despite the introduction of the Equality Act 2010.

So, what to do about this?

While we remain positive about government and societies will to tackle this last workplace taboo there are some clear actions which we would like to see.

It won’t have escaped anyone’s attention that the UK is set to leave the EU in ten short months. What is less well thought about though is the government has yet to include adherence to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in domestic legislation. As of now, it is only enshrined in European legislation, meaning that after March 2019 this legislation will no longer apply to UK law.

That’s why we are calling for the government to strengthen the Equality Act and enshrine the UN Convention for the Rights of people with Disabilities in UK law after Brexit, a move that is essential to protect the employment rights of people experiencing mental ill health and mental health conditions. 

Additionally, we believe the government should bring in a package of measures which include:

• Introducing an Ofsted-style system to increase employer accountability and action through external mental health reporting.
• Ensuring that individuals with short term or recurring periods of mental ill health are protected by legislation.
• Incentivising employers to implement the six core standards from 2017’s Stevenson-Farmer mental health review.
• Better training for line managers to support employees who experience mental health conditions.
• Investing in a workplace mental health awareness and anti-stigma campaign and employer portal to share information and best practice and access to relevant schemes

We have reached a crucial point when it comes to managing mental health in the workplace. Employers are more aware of mental health issues and have put more tools in place to support people experiencing mental ill health but the reluctance to recruit an individual with a mental health condition into their workplace due to attitudes from co-workers is a serious worry and progress must be made on this front.

Adopting the package of measures advocated above, we hope will help break this last workplace taboo and help change the way employers work with, and support, colleagues with mental health conditions.

Please do have a read of the full report which we hope contributes to the vital ongoing conversation around mental health in the workplace.

Charlie Garnett is Policy and Public Affairs Officer at Shaw Trust