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Is mental illness still a taboo at work?

Georgina Fuller

Georgina Fuller asks why mental illness is still a taboo in the workplace and what can be done to change old attitudes towards mental illness at work

If you heard a colleague or even your boss was suffering with a mental illness, be it depression, anxiety or stress, how would you feel about it? Would you be worried or anxious that it would affect their ability to work and your working relationship with them? And what if it was you who was afflicted? Unfortunately, the stigma of mental illness is still rife in today’s workplace despite the fact that one in four of us will suffer with a mental health issue at some point in our lives.

The vast majority of us, however, (eight in ten, according to a recent study by the Priory Group mental health specialists) would not tell our employer if we were afflicted with a mental health issue in case we were discriminated against or unfairly misjudged as a result. It’s clearly a big problem for employers and an estimated 70 million working days were lost to mental illness last year, according to the latest annual report by the Chief Medical Officer.

So what can line managers do to help improve the working lives of those with mental illnesses and how they can help to break the taboo in the workplace

Part of the problem, says Beth Burgess, therapist and coach at Smyls Therapy, is that there is still a massive misconception about mental health. “There is still an idea that having mental or emotional issues can cloud your judgement at work.  Actually, it’s probably the opposite. Most people with mental health issues will overcompensate, taking extra care to do a good job and suffering silently,” she notes. The stigma becomes self-perpetuating, Burgess believes. “Because it isn’t talked about, no-one ever realises that mental health doesn’t preclude people from being valuable team members and doing a great job."

Promoting an open-minded, non-judgemental and supportive culture can go a long way in helping to improve the lives of those with mental illness at work and this should be reflected in all policies and procedures, Burgess advises. Having a notice board in the office with numbers to ring in case of mental health difficulties or including details of how employees with mental health issues will be supported in an induction handbook can go some way in helping prevent the stigma. 

“Forward-thinking employers might consider investing in a wellness program for employees, to both demonstrate their commitment to employee wellbeing, and to provide helpful resources to anyone who might be on the brink of mental ill health,” Burgess says.

Psychotherapist Abigail Eaton-Masters says it’s also important for employees to be as open as possible with their manager. “Although there is no obligation to tell your employer about any mental health conditions, the more open you can be, the better chance there is at help and support. For example, some employers, such as John Lewis, provide counselling and other support for their employees,” she notes.

Putting a confidentiality agreement in place to give the employee autonomy to choose whether to disclose or not can also help, says Eaton-Masters. “Mental health illness should be regarded as any other condition, and by knowing that your privacy is respected; it goes a long way to give the employee confidence that their employer holds their wellbeing in high regard.” But until we start opening up about mental illness and treating it in the same way as any other health problem, the stigma will continue to prevail. 

Mental health – the legal lowdown

Employers have a legal duty of care to employees under the Equality Act 2010 (and its predecessor, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995), which clearly established a framework to recognise and protect against discrimination on the grounds of mental (as well as physical) impairments. Employers also have a number of other legal obligations. Trevor Bettany, partner at Charles Russell Speechlys LLP, outlines the key considerations:

• Health and safety -primarily to undertake risk assessments and manage work well enough to avoid stress.
• Negligence - an employer owes a common law duty of care to safeguard employees against foreseeable risks of injury, including psychiatric injury.
• Common law obligations – include the duty to provide a safe system of work.
• Working Time Regulations – the management of working time, ensuring proper rest breaks and paid holidays.
• Implied duty of trust and confidence – includes residual obligations on an employer not to act in a way which undermines or destroys the trust between them.
• Unfair dismissal – an employer will have to demonstrate that any dismissal is for a fair based reason and that it has followed appropriate steps before dismissing as a last resort. Those steps will include some effort to support the employee.
 

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ILM and Maudsley Learning

ILM, in collaboration with Maudsley Learning, have announced two new units designed to support and guide leaders and managers seeking to improve the management of mental health in the workplace.

 

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