These are the conversations we need to be having about mental health in the workplace

Tim Rigby
Technical Recruiter

Every day, countless conversations are occurring about mental health. They’re occurring between family members. They’re occurring between friends. But there’s still a huge stigma around discussing mental health in the workplace.

As recently as 2009, 56% of employers said they wouldn’t hire someone with depression, even if they were the best candidate for the role. You can therefore see why 30% of employees feel uncomfortable talking to a line manager about workplace stress - and why a staggering 95% of people who do call in sick for stress give a different reason.

Some people are left feeling apprehensive about discussing mental health at work - whether that's because they're concerned they won't get the right support, they don't know what support is available to them, or they're worried about the stigma attached to admitting you need help in the first place. There is the worry you will be treated differently, even negatively, by your colleagues or boss - and that this could lead to isolation or dismissal. 

But poor mental health does not begin and end at home, it needs to be addressed within the workplace, as Mind explain: 


"Mental health problems can affect the way people think, feel or behave. In some cases this can seriously limit a person's ability to cope with day-to-day life, which can impact on relationships, work and quality of life."




Poor mental health can impact every aspect of our lives, including our work.

In fact, over 55% of people surveyed by Mind said they found work more stressful than "health, financial problems, debt, and relationship problems". 

It is to the benefit of companies themselves to address this too. Mental ill-health is the leading cause of sickness absence in the UK, costing businesses an average of £1,035 per employee per year

Nobody is winning in this situation. Employees are struggling due to stress and mental health problems, and they're taking days off feeling they cannot be honest as to why. Meanwhile, employers are losing money and their workplaces are, in some cases, unsupportive to their staff. 

Before we're able to implement solutions to mental health problems in the workplace, we need to start talking about them. This means making each workplace an environment where mental health is a normal topic of conversation, that carries no stigma. 



The importance of talking 

I have my own personal experiences of mental health problems, and, as a Recruiter, I've helped people with mental health problems find a role in which they can get the right support. I know how hard it can be to talk to someone in a work environment, particularly if you're not sure how that person will view it. 

In my own experience, there came a time when I found myself struggling at work and stressed to the point where I felt like I couldn't do anything. I wasn't working efficiently or effectively and so I decided to explain everything to my boss. 

Her response was one of the most refreshing responses I've had since first accepting I had a problem years ago. She listened. She didn't make suggestions. She just listened. In her words: 'I don't understand this, I can only try to make sense of what you tell me. You don't have to tell me anything you don't want to, but I'll use whatever you do to try and understand as best I can.' 




A friend of mine, however, who we'll call Sam, had an altogether different experience when broaching the subject of mental health with his employer. He works in Finance in the South East and says he "went through the company procedure in place, and told them everything".

He felt like he "had no structure or direction" and was looking for guidance. His company's solution? "Go home for four weeks, get your head right and come back." 

Sam says, "I can see how this would have been helpful to some people, but four weeks at home wasn't really what I was hoping for in terms of help. It's good they have a process in place for it, it just seems a bit rigid. For me, it was quite lonely, and it didn't exactly help with the lack of structure."

Meanwhile, my boss' approach worked for me. I talked her through it and helped her understand my situation as best I could. We didn't need to explore the possibility of time off, I was happy just knowing my line manager appreciated the problem, and was there to support me. The fact that someone on a professional level accepted they didn't have a full understanding, and was happy to listen, made me infinitely more hopeful.


It is great that Sam's work are making an effort to implement solutions for their company as a whole regarding mental health, but he didn't feel listened to, or treated like a unique individual with a unique problem. For him, being sent home actually felt more punitive than supportive and it was not helpful. 

We need more conversations around mental health in the workplace to happen like the one I had with my employer, where employees are made to feel safe, supported and heard. Company-wide policy is a crucial start, but we need to remember to be flexible to individual needs. 



How are we going to move forwards?

There are some great companies out there doing some really brilliant things, with over 500 companies now signed up to Time to Change’s Employer Pledge.

As part of the pledge, companies create an action plan with help from Time to Change, who then assist the company in training managers to ensure they are well-versed in how to approach the discussion of mental health with employees. At present, many managers say they don't feel confident supporting employees' mental health due to a lack of guidance - so training will be essential to opening lines of communication in workplaces. 

In my time in Recruitment, I’ve spoken to companies that are allowing their procedures to evolve as we learn about how to deal with mental health, and following feedback from employees. They have systems in place to genuinely support employees through onsite counselling, encouraging employees to look after their physical and mental wellbeing, and understanding that steps need to be taken to combat mental health problems.  


It is little use working to break down the stigma around mental health, only to replace it with one-size-fits-all policies that still fall short in treating employees like individual human beings. We have to behave in a flexible manner towards mental health, because one answer won’t solve everyone’s problems.

Here's where we can start moving forwards: behaving like my employer did. Sometimes it just takes someone who will listen to you, actually have a conversation with you, and use everything in their power to work with you to help.


Tim Rigby is a Technical Recruiter at Smart Moves Recruitment and has guided several graduates through the application process to getting their first job. You can read more of his insights via LinkedIn