Acas research calls for joined-up approach to managing mental health at work

Research published by Acas on managing mental health at work adds to the weight of evidence for a joined-up approach to the problem. Gill Dix, Acas head of strategy, looks at solutions identified by the research. 

If we are seriously going to help to bridge the “disability employment gap”, as set out in the Government’s recent work, health and disability Green Paper, Improving lives, then we need to find new and innovative ways for organisations and line managers to engage with an agenda that can no longer be brushed under the carpet.

So what’s to be done? New Acas research on managing mental health at work throws up some familiar challenges. The question of line manager confidence and competency in supporting individuals with mental health conditions comes to the fore. It also calls for a “joined-up” approach to managing mental health – a shared commitment from senior and front line managers, and peers. But it also delves deeper into the challenges, and identifies some solutions.

Awareness has risen of the stigma associated with mental health in society. However, the conversation is yet to permeate many organisations. In the case of the workplace, it’s a question of both creating the right climate, and adopting appropriate practices and behaviours. It’s only with this base line in place that we can begin to tackle the further challenge of supporting individuals who struggle with self-stigma.

This brings us to the question of disclosure, a vital link in the chain when it comes to effective management of those with mental health conditions. This is a sensitive question seeing as the balance between what is private and what is public is a difficult one. Worryingly, a recent report from the Mental Health Foundation found that 41% of people did not disclose their mental health condition because of a sense of shame.

The Acas research also found that disclosing a mental health condition to a line manager can be something of a gamble. This can’t be right. While we should never feel line managers need to be therapists, we should promote better emotional intelligence or “advanced common sense” as positive qualities for managers. And in some instances this involves being sensitive to the fact that it may be that a co-worker (with the right training) might be the most appropriate person to offer support.

The Mental Health Foundation research also helps to nail the economic case: people with mental health problems deliver significantly more benefits than costs. Certainly, some of the good practice organisations in our own research need little persuading about the benefits of fully integrating individuals with mental health challenges into their organisations. And as a consequence, some organisations have stepped up their game and found that targeted interventions can work well alongside more generic schemes. One successful example was where people with experience of mental health illness were trained to “train the trainers” in other workplaces.

Finally, our research respondents were also acutely mindful of the potential impact of the modern workplace on the wellbeing of their employees.

While pressing deadlines and targets may offer structure and goals for one person, for another they may generate stress and sense of failure or overload. Some scenarios can be managed through good group and one to one communication. However, the Acas research hints strongly at the need to guard against creating “anxious organisations”: where external pressures translate into stress for individuals, or where change is poorly managed.

Overall, it seems that a combination of short- and long-term solutions, light touch and more strategic approaches provide the greatest chance to unlock the complexity of mental health. Underneath it all, empowering employees to find their own solutions to mental health problems can create a sense of continuity and shared responsibility.

Recent years have seen remarkable progress in opening up the whole issue of mental health. This is largely thanks to the work of the numerous mental health charities. But now it’s time for the workplace to shine. It’s time to find more space to talk about mental health at work and to make the experience of poor mental health a “normalised experience” for everyone.


About Gill Dix

Gill Dix is head of strategy at Acas.
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