Trade secrets: managing mental health at work

Mental health: how big a problem?

A business issue

Steps to take in managing mental health at work

Do’s and don’ts in managing individuals with mental health problems

Mental health statistics

Our expert

Tim Cooper is managing director of the Shaw Trust. As the UK’s leading voluntary sector provider of employment and training opportunities for disabled and disadvantaged people, working with employers and individuals alike, the trust is committed to full employment for all. The organisation works for over 60,000 people a year who are disabled or disadvantaged in the workplace.

Conventional wisdom tells us that if we are not feeling well we shouldn’t be at work. That is very often what GPs will tell their patients and what we, as line managers and HR professionals, will tell our staff.

But managing issues such as mental ill-health make things more complicated. Indeed, when it comes to managing mental health at work, there are strong arguments for saying that work is part of the prescription for good health. Yet every year British business loses time, money and talent as people leave employment due to common issues such as anxiety, depression and extreme stress.

According to a 2005 report from mental health charity Mind, nearly three in every 10 employees will have a mental health problem in any one year. This in itself shouldn’t be worrying, but when combined with our findings from Shaw Trust’s own survey, Mental Health: the Last Workplace Taboo, that employers are seriously underestimating the extent to which employees are experiencing stress, anxiety, depression and other forms of mental ill-health, British business begins to resemble the proverbial ostrich.

Almost three-quarters of employers (71%) believe the incidence of mental ill-health among their workforce is 5% or less – a fraction of the national average. Nearly half the HR directors surveyed agreed, grossly under-estimating the extent of the problem.

A business issue

This is a big problem for the individual battling to hold down a job and manage a mental health condition – often in silence because of the stigma surrounding it – and it’s a challenge for the line manager who may suspect that their staff member is struggling but doesn’t know how to help them and is fearful of getting it wrong. It’s a problem for the HR manager who often gets called in when the situation has escalated and resolving it to everyone’s benefit is much harder. And it’s an issue for the senior management who are ultimately responsible for the effectiveness and profitability of their company.

In pure business terms, a failure to manage mental health in the workplace costs the UK economy as much as £9bn in salaries (according to our research) with a further unknown cost in terms of lost time and productivity – not to mention the loss of skills and experience if employees are managed incorrectly and feel they have to leave employment.

But it doesn’t need to be difficult to manage mental health in the workplace. There is no definitive approach, but the stigma that surrounds mental ill healthcreates a curtain of fear around it. Managers who are quite capable of supporting employees who have broken a leg feel lost when it comes to supporting a person who has been diagnosed with depression. Education, the first step in understanding and implementing a feasible solution, is severely lacking in UK businesses. And most companies are not equipped to support their line managers in supporting direct reports. We found that most organisations don’t have effective policies to deal with employee mental health issues or effective provision to identify and manage mental health.

Taking steps

So what can employers do to manage mental health in the workplace effectively?

1 Raise Awareness: The most common forms of mental ill health are depression and anxiety. According to the depression alliance, two million people in the UK are dealing with depression at any one time. Yet when many of us think of mental health conditions, we think of the more severe psychotic conditions such as schizophrenia, which affects less than 1% of the population.

Bringing in mental health awareness training for staff will help employees be more aware of their own and their colleagues mental health and, therefore, be more understanding and tolerant, which will help to promote a culture of openess and safety for individuals to disclose mental health conditions and talk about issues.

Make sure your staff are regularly kept aware of the policies and support mechanisms in your organisation, such as employee assistance programmes, so they feel reassured that they work for an organisation that values them and wants to support them – we spend the majority of our week at work, so having a framework of support can be essential for those suffering a mental health issue.

2 Recognise early warning signs: Line managers are much closer to staff on a day to day basis than HR. By educating line managers in the early warning signs of potential mental health conditions, they will be able to act early and support the person before the situation escalates and the person goes on long-term sickness absence or worse, the organisation loses the talent and skills that person brings to the workplace.

3 It’s good to talk: If you have noticed early warning signs of a potential mental health issue or someone has disclosed a mental health condition to you – the best thing you can do is talk about it. Talk to the individual themselves and, with their consent, talk to your internal HR and occupational health to understand what policies and support is on offer.

4 Remember you’re not a doctor: As an employer it is your duty to look after the wellbeing of your staff. But you need to remember you are not a doctor and so should avoid getting into situations where you are giving counselling or diagnosing conditions. What you can do is offer practical support to make managing work easier, from offering simple solutions like flexible working hours, to providing a private space to take medication, and redistributing workload to more complex support such as bringing in a ‘buddy’ to work one on one with the person or some tailored training to help with a particular issue.

With support and the removal of discriminatory barriers, people with mental ill health can make a valuable contribution to society and have the same right as everyone else to do so.

The Shaw Trust is launching a campaign  to tackle the stigma surrounding mental ill health in the workplace and provide line managers with a free online resource giving them up to date best practice advice and guidance to support their staff with mental health conditions.

Mental health: The facts

  • 76% of employers believe British industry loses a great deal of talent because it does not know how to best deal with mental health problems
  • Around seven in 10 employers recognise that they don’t know enough about their legal position and obligations relating to mental health.
  • Eight in 10 directors say their company has no policy to deal with stress and mental ill-health in the workplace.
  • Nearly three in every 10 employees will have a mental health problem in any one year, the great majority of which will be depressive and anxiety disorders.
  • Eight in 10 employers suggest that applicants should disclose any condition prior to being hired, yet less than four in 10 employers say they would consider employing someone with a history of mental health problems

Managing mental health conversations: Dos and don’ts


  • Have a conversation in a neutral and private space, not your office.
  • Make sure there are no interruptions. Switch your mobile phone off.
  • Be focused. You only need information that will help you achieve the goal of supporting your employee.
  • Ask open non-controlling questions. For example, ‘I was wondering how you were doing?’
  • Use Neutral language for example, ‘you seem very low today’.
  • Always allow the person time to answer
  • Try and put yourself in the other person’s shoes and see things from their position.
  • Make arrangements for a follow-up meeting to review the situation.
  • Always think about confidentiality. It is vital that you discuss and agree with them exactly who else if anyone might need to know and what information is ok to share.


  • Attempt to initiate a conversation in front of everyone.
  • Initiate a conversation if you’ve got another appointment looming.
  • Attempt to diagnose. Remember you’re not a doctor or a qualified counsellor.
  • Ask questions that could create pressure like “What is wrong with you then?” or “Are you stressed or something?”
  • Use medical language linked to illnesses like “you seem depressed” unless the employee uses it.
  • Push for an answer. Be patient.
  • Rush in with another question, without listening to the answer you’ve been given.
  • Tell the person what to do.
  • Announce someone’s personal situation to the rest of the team without agreeing what information is necessary beforehand.

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