Mental health in the workplace

Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of the mental health charity Mind, shares his insights into how employers can work in partnership with staff to support mental health and wellbeing at work

“We can’t really say that mental health isn’t in the spotlight anymore,” says Paul. “It is something that has slowly but surely risen up the agenda and it’s an important moment for all of us to pay further attention to this really critical issue. 

“We know that poor mental health touches every life – communities, workplaces, families and friends.”

Sharing some perhaps well-known but nevertheless poignant statistics about mental health (below), Paul explains: “There is a real reason for us to spend time thinking about our own mental health, the mental health of our colleagues and the mental health of the system we operate in.”

  • One in four people experience a mental health problem every year
  • One in six workers in the UK are experiencing depression, anxiety or stress
  • 300,000 people leave work every year with a mental health condition.

When looking at health care, and particularly nursing staff, the figures around mental health are striking. 

Data shows that NHS nurses took nearly one million days off sick with mental health problems in the first eight months of 2019 and last year the office for national statistics said that the suicide rate among nurses is 23% higher than the national average, with female nursing staff at particularly high risk.

There are clear solutions organisations can follow that don't necessarily mean huge amounts of resource. What they do require is a sense of priority

Paul says that when it comes to supporting people with their mental health, Mind recognises “the critical centrality of the workplace” and he has co-authored a report demonstrating to organisations what good practice looks like.

The report, titled Thriving at Work: The Stevenson Farmer Review of Mental Health and Employers, suggests that broadly speaking there are three places that people can be in terms of their mental health at work; thriving, struggling and unwell.

Paul says: “Our big message to any employer is that you need to think about the whole of your workforce in terms of these three states. We all move between these states at various times in our working lives.

“There’s an ‘obvious relation’ that I hear up and down the country when I’m talking to colleagues in the NHS in mental health services, and in primary care and acute trusts. The pressure of work is taking its toll on our workforce.

“We think there are clear solutions that organisations can easily follow and they are not always solutions that necessarily mean huge amounts of resource. But what they do require is a sense of priority.”

The report identifies six core standards for organisations to follow: 

  1. Produce, implement and communicate a mental health at work plan.
  2. Develop mental health awareness among employees.
  3. Encourage open conversations about mental health and the support available when employees are struggling. 
  4. Provide your employees with good working conditions.
  5. Promote effective people management.
  6. Routinely monitor employee mental health and wellbeing.

Paul goes on to say that large employers and the public sector can, and should, go further by demonstrating best practice through external reporting and designated leadership responsibility.

Paul says: “It’s important for organisations to be transparent through their reporting about the work they’re doing to support the mental health and mental wellbeing of their staff. They need to have a clear lead at board level and also make sure their inhouse mental health support is clear.”

Paul explains how organisations can begin to put these principles into practice: “The most important thing is to recognise that everyone has a role to play in organisations to support the wellbeing of employees.”

How can organisations put the core standards into practice?

  • Get senior leaders on board and to lead by example.
  • Equip line managers by providing training and clear guidance.
  • Build the mental health literacy of all staff - ensure people understand what their own mental health is and what support is available.
  • Build a supportive team culture.

Paul also says it’s important to remember that people with mental health problems are protected by law under the principles of the Equality Act, mainly under the disability framework.

Paul says: “Although there are grey areas, people are protected by the law and employers have a legal duty to respond and make reasonable adjustments where necessary.”

Paul gives the example that types of reasonable adjustments could include flexible working or certain shift patterns.

“We do hear that people are frightened to disclose their mental health history because they’re worried about the way it will be perceived from a fitness to practice point of view,” says Paul. “However, disclosure in the workplace is an important part of being able to receive the appropriate support and the appropriate protection from a legal perspective as well.”

More information

This article is based on Paul’s talk at the RCN UK Joint Reps Conference in Milton Keynes on 11 October 2019.

You can find more advice and useful resources about mental health at work by visiting the Mental Health at Work website. Resources include a toolkit for health care workers. Take a look at the toolkit.

Slides from Paul’s presentation will be available online soon on the RCN Reps Hub. These include tips for supportive conversations, best practice one-to-ones and advice on what questions to ask.

The RCN’s Healthy Workplace campaign provides a framework for developing good working conditions for nursing staff and can be used by RCN reps in partnership with their employers.

The “Healthy You” elements of the campaign, including the “time and space” mindfulness videos, offer nursing staff information and resources to help manage physical and emotional stress, and to help recognise when they might need more support.

Read more about our Healthy Workplace, Healthy You campaign.

Let us know what you’re doing

If you’re an RCN member working on something to improve mental health support and wellbeing in your workplace, we’d love to find out more. Email activate@rcn.org.uk or use our Contact Us form.

Read next...