Opening up about mental health at work puts staff at risk of dismissal

Employees who disclose mental health issues at work commonly risk demotion, disciplinary action and even dismissal, research from the charity Business in the Community (BITC) has warned.

In the survey of more than 3,000 people carried out by pollster YouGov for BITC, three out of five employees (60%) questioned said they had experienced mental health issues because of work.

Yet, despite more than half (53%) saying they felt comfortable talking about mental health at work, a significant percentage also felt they risked serious repercussions for disclosing a mental health issue.

A total of 15% said they faced dismissal, disciplinary action or demotion after disclosing a mental health issue at work. Worryingly, this figure appeared to have got worse since a previous poll in 2016, which found 9% saying this.

Extrapolating this finding to the general working population, BITC argued this could mean as many as 1.2 million people being negatively affected for disclosing mental health problems.

The Mental Health at Work Report 2017 has been published ahead of World Mental Health Day on Tuesday 10 October.

Louise Aston, wellbeing director at BITC, said: “Despite the increased prominence of mental health as a workplace issue, it remains the elephant in the room that over a million people face serious repercussions for disclosing mental health issues to their employers.

“It is time to challenge the myth that having a mental health issues equates to poor performance. We must equip managers with the knowledge and training to make the reasonable workplace adjustments that enable people to stay in work and thrive,” she added.

More positively, the research did identify some general improvement in attitudes towards mental health in the workplace. More than eight out of 10 employers (84%) said they acknowledged they had a responsibility towards their employees’ mental wellbeing. And nine out of 10 managers (91%) agreed that what they did affected the wellbeing of their staff.

Half of the line managers polled said they would welcome training on mental health conditions.
Despite this, fewer than a quarter (24%) of managers polled said they had received any training in mental health, and 35% reported not having any workplace facilities or services to support employee mental health and wellbeing.

There also remained a pervasive culture of silence over mental health at work, with three out of four people affected choosing not to involve anyone at work, said BITC.

In all, just 11% of people said they felt able to disclose a mental health issue to their line manager.

Younger people were more likely to have been formally diagnosed with a mental health condition (37% versus 29% of employees in their 50s) yet were also less likely to disclose these concerns to their bosses then older workers.

Just a third of 18-29 year olds said they would be comfortable talking with their managers about mental health, compared with almost half of people in their 40s.

Women, however, were more likely to report experiencing mental health issues related to work (64% reporting issues compared with 56% of men).

There was a broad consensus that mental health was one of the most difficult subjects to talk about at work. Out of the nine equality and social issues asked about in the survey, people said they felt more comfortable talking about seven other issues, including race, age, physical health and religious beliefs.

Black, Asian and minority ethnic employees were also less likely to feel comfortable talking about mental health at work (43% compared with 54% of white employees).

Finally, there was a disconnect between how senior leaders and employees viewed this issue, said BITC. More than three out of five owners, chief executives and managing directors (61%) believed their employees’ mental health was well supported, compared with 40% of non-managers.

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