January 30, 2021

The elephant that never left the room

Why stigma is still preventing employees from telling their boss the truth about their mental wellbeing in the workplace

Stigma and fear remain the two most common blockers to talking about mental wellbeing openly, both within the workplace and within our society. Only a positive and open workplace culture can resolve these things.

There is a real synergy between home and work and the “one- dimensional” work-home balance needs to be reviewed. There are many social determinants that impact upon an individual’s mental health and these will not be solely defined to either work or home; there is an interplay that influences all aspects of an individual’s health.

It’s important that whilst employers critically and objectively evaluate their organisation to ensure that they meet their legal requirements for providing a safe working environment, they also recognise that supporting employees with their mental wellbeing is more broad ranging than this. For example, access to timely treatment will help to improve the mental wellbeing of employees, as will providing support for social determinants, such a finances, legal needs, social isolation and housing. Both approaches truly demonstrate how valued employees are within their workplace, feeding into a culture of support.

There is a need for consistent, open, honest and compassionate discussions around mental health and wellbeing in the workplace and this requires a cultural shift that is modelled from executive level down. Training, normalising discussions around mental health, and having clear signposting routes with access to flexible and appropriate mental health support and treatment are all key factors.

Early identification and intervention are key to supporting employees in looking after their mental health and wellbeing.

An organisation’s culture and values towards mental wellbeing needs to be lived through its behaviours, to have any meaningful impact on employees; and this, in turn, becomes the testament of an effective mental health strategy in the workplace.

Mental wellbeing in the workplace still has some way to go.

Employers are asking employees to talk about their mental wellbeing to managers, yet evidence suggests that employees are not wanting to do that.

More than half of employees don’t feel their mental wellbeing is a priority, or sufficiently cared for by the employer, yet more than half of employer’s state that mental wellbeing is a key priority for them.

It seems that the greatest area to be worked on is honesty or, to get to the heart of the matter, being comfortable.

Employees need to feel more confident in approaching their employers with concerns around mental wellbeing, whilst bosses need to feel better equipped to listen and understand.

The cost of a team whose mental wellbeing isn’t being addressed is high, and employers remain slow to respond to the needs of their teams. With the COVID-19 pandemic demanding a swift revision of employer policy and provision for mental wellbeing, a meagre 7% of bosses have engaged with this need for change and added specific support for COVID-19 to their existing wellbeing policy. During times when teams are under pressure, the importance of a clear understanding and delivery of care for mental wellbeing in the workplace has never been so important.

It would appear that the discourse around mental wellbeing in the workplace is more a case of two parties shouting separately into the wind. The answer lies in tackling the stigma that still appears to plague mental health and mental wellbeing. Only when employers do that can they genuinely work on a culture that is open, inclusive, and understanding of mental wellbeing, from the top down.

An increasingly stressed workforce

Employees continue to report elements of their professional life that pose a risk to mental wellbeing. Workload, money and office culture top the list of negative influences to mental wellbeing, all of which correlate to their perception of work becoming “more stressful” in the last two years.

In the Benenden survey of employees, the main causes for mental wellbeing deteriorating in the workplace were identified.

  • Increased workload 43%
  • Financial concerns 33%
  • Workplace culture 30%
  • Job insecurity 30%
  • Workplace bullying 28%
  • External family pressures 21%
  • Hitting deadlines 20%
  • Managing people 19%
  • External relationship pressures 14%
  • Managing clients or customers 13%
  • I don’t think there are any main causes 8%
  • Prefer not to say 2%
  • Other 1%

We can see where the impasse currently lies in the dialogue between employer and employee.

COVID-19 and mental wellbeing

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only posed a physical risk to the general public, but an emotional one.

The NHS Confederation has revealed a rise in patients reporting severe mental health difficulties. It follows, then, that the economic uncertainty fuelled by the pandemic has altered perceptions of wellbeing in the workplace.

Most notably, whereas financial concerns represented a source of work-related stress for a third of employees prior to COVID-19, more than half now cite money as a worry, based on job security and wider financial worries within the family.

The following areas were causing employees the most stress at work, at the moment, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Respondents who say their job is stressful

  • Fear of losing my job 25%
  • Fear of being made to go back to work when I don’t think it’s safe 25%
  • Not being able to ‘turn off’ 24%
  • Finances 23%
  • Too much work 20%
  • Nothing is causing me the most stress at work at the moment as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic 16%
  • Being away from my colleagues 14%
  • Not having the resources (e.g. broadband, technology) to do my job to the best of my ability 13%
  • Children being at home 11%
  • Too little work 10%
  • Fear of being furloughed 10%
  • Prefer not to say 2%
  • Other 2%

For many employers, COVID-19 has been a stark warning to adopt and deploy robust employee wellbeing policies: some have modified measures already in place, others have started again, whilst a minority – unfortunately – seem to have let the pandemic play out without any support for employees on this front.

This point is pivotal, and one that we will return to later.

Silence still stifles the conversation

When faced with deteriorating mental wellbeing because of their professional life, one in three employees still reports feeling uncomfortable discussing their mental wellbeing at work.

Employers can only act if their employees are forthcoming

One in three bosses don’t think that any of their employees have ever had their mental wellbeing compromised due (or partly due) to work. Meanwhile, 7% simply didn’t know.

There is even more confidence in smaller businesses: 65% of those employing 1-9 members of staff claim that the work has not compromised the mental wellbeing of any employee. Meanwhile, only 49% of businesses with 10-49 members of staff would say the same.

The chasm between the reality for the employer and the employee is startling. It appears that in smaller companies, there’s less overall provision for mental wellbeing and, paradoxically, a rosier outlook on the mental wellbeing of employees.

Why do these “truths” look and sound so different?

Different realities

When less than one in three employees are happy to talk to their boss about their mental wellbeing, why do three out of four employers say they’re comfortable in discussing mental health and wellbeing? The answer is perhaps a case of different realities: we see what we want to see – and, in many cases, we can only see as clearly as the information we have allows us to:

The disconnect between employers and employees

  • Employers fail to effectively engage with their employees on this matter
  • Where employers do ask their employees for feedback, this is far more optimistic than the reality for fear of repercussions
  • Employers are genuinely in the dark and may be rolling out mental wellbeing policies based on erroneous information
  • Employers therefore have a need to reassure their employees of their intentions when asking about mental wellbeing and follow-up with appropriate plans and provisions

Why are employees not talking about mental wellbeing? Stigma stops progress

Those who felt unable to discuss mental wellbeing in the workplace paint a picture of the stigma that they feel is still attached to the topic. The range of responses covered the perception of colleagues, through to fears around impeded career progression or even job losses. This fear is reflected in half of our respondents revealing that they avoid disclosing the truth if taking a day off due to mental wellbeing. This response alone is enough to tell us that much more needs to be done.

Who are employees talking to?

it comes as no surprise to learn that just 24% of employees would confide in either their boss or HR functionwith regards to their mental wellbeing. Slightly more encouraging are the 16% who would confide in a colleague. Family and friends were listed by 78% of those surveyed as a port of call, along with the GP (38%).

A little white lie the untold story of sick days

More than half of days taken off for poor mental wellbeing were recorded as annual leave or physical sick days, instead of employees disclosing the real reason. In the case of disclosure, 16% of employees were told by their employer to book their mental wellbeing day off as annual leave.

Again, this gives some indication of the work that remains to be done in this area.

Employers have a different story

Just 5% of employers admitted to asking their employees to take a mental wellbeing day as annual leave, which, in itself, tells us how bound up in stigma mental wellbeing still is.

Far more employers (32%) underline the existence of mental wellbeing days off; yet it seems clear that employees avoid using thesefor their apparent purpose due to the stigma surrounding mental wellbeing in the workplace.

The one area of parity is taking time off as a regular sick day: roughly one in three employers report this phenomenon, and so do one in three employees, taking time off but logging it as a physical sick day.

Whether this part of the picture is helpful or not is very much up for debate: on the one hand, this hints at giving as much importance for mental wellbeing days off as those for physical sickness; but on the other, it suggests an unwillingness to openly discuss mental wellbeing from both sides.

There is a real risk of homogenising the management of employees who are off on physical sick leave and those who are off for their mental wellbeing. Furthermore, if staff fail to log the real reasons behind absences, it becomes almost impossible for employers to look at data and make meaningful decisions about improvements to policies, including mental wellbeing policies.

The cost to employers

At the start of 2020, Deloitte released findings to reveal that poor mental wellbeing was costing UK businesses up to £45 billion each year.

With employees clearly feeling that they can’t be entirely truthful about sick days, the potential for misunderstanding and mismanagement of mental wellbeing is very real.

What does this oversight mean to bosses in day-to-day terms?

  • Employees off on long term sick
  • An active workforce that is disengaged
  • No real clarity on how to move forwards with better working practices

What is the potential cost to your business?

Based on the cost of absenteeism as identified by Greater Birmingham Chamber of Commerce’s recent research, this equates to between £232-£580 per employee,
per year in absenteeism costs.

Your people are your biggest asset

The old adage rings true when considered in the context of recruitment and training, against a backdrop of employee attrition. More than one in two employees said that they would leave their job if their mental wellbeing wasn’t being supported by their company, and more than one in two also seek out a supportive mental wellbeing policy when looking for new opportunities.

Can employers afford to lose great team members because they don’t want to invest in measures to support mental wellbeing?

COVID-19 has turned the tables on the candidate-driven market for just a moment in time. However, as businesses continue to pivot and deploy contingency plans, the need to attract the very best talent will redress the balance once more.

The benefit of investing in people

“For every £1 spent by employers on mental health interventions they get £5 back in reduced absence, presenteeism and staff turnover.”

Where’s the employer in all of this? Attitudes and ethos

Crucially, research suggested that 53% of employees don’t feel their mental wellbeing is a big enough priority for their employer.

A “tick box” culture – revisited

Employers had vanity measures in place, without any real forethought or intention of adhering to them. This was evidenced by less than one in four employees claiming that mental wellbeing was at the heart of the business they worked for.

And whilst the needle has moved, it has yet to truly shift. We can see this in the similar proportion of respondents who cite a “sporadic” approach to mental wellbeing.

More tellingly, whilst 22% of employees felt that mental wellbeing was categorically not a business priority, 26% of employees have criticised their employer for appearing to prioritise mental wellbeing without any genuine care for it. As such, there are elements of the tick box culture to mental wellbeing that appear to have been perpetuated.

Employer intentions

Interestingly, 70% of employers recognised the importance that their employees placed on a solid mental wellbeing policy when joining and in deciding to stay with their business. When questioned about their mental wellbeing policies, 56% claimed that one was in place prior to COVID-19, whilst 22% were looking into implementing a policy.

On the score of the different businesses that have a policy in place, there were some interesting sector and company size variances.

The shortfall Employers’ understanding

When it comes to understanding the wider discussion around mental wellbeing in the workplace, employers are failing woefully. Unfortunately, the same can be said when it comes to them consulting with their employees.

Effective provision starts with a clear understanding of everyone’s needs. The issue isn’t one of complacency, however, but one of uncertainty.

This is backed up by 74% of employers somewhat agreeing or strongly agreeing that mental health and awareness training would be beneficial for their company. It appears that this need is felt keenly by employees, too: 78% of them agree that businesses should provide mental health and mental wellbeing awareness training to line managers.

Employers’ current processes

Uncertainty can breed inefficiency, and this would appear to be the case with the process for mental wellbeing management and pastoral care used by many employers. Put simply, it leaves employees in a position where they feel unable to confide in the people and channels currently in place.

48% of employers ask their team to speak to their line managers or colleagues for support, yet only 14% of employees feel happy to confide in their boss, whilst only 16% would comfortably turn to a colleague. The onus is very much put-on employees to seek help, which means that employers have a space in which to be much more proactive moving forward.

What do employees really want?

When it comes to mental wellbeing, employees seek a confidential, non-judgmental space, in which they can talk through any causes for concern.

53% of employees would readily use a confidential mental wellbeing helpline if they had one available in the workplace. Yet only 24% of employers currently provide this.

The current impasse lies not in the awareness of mental wellbeing in the workplace, but in doing something meaningful about it. Employers are struggling to foster a culture where it’s as comfortable to talk about mental health as it’s physical health.

The struggle comes about because they don’t have the depth and honesty of feedback that they need from their team; nor do they necessarily have the tools to deliver change.

Working through stigma

Stigma works both ways:employees still feel reluctant to talk things through, to request mental wellbeing days off and to provide transparent feedback if and when asked for their opinion on company policy. Similarly, many employers simply lack the personal nous and professional tools to have meaningful dialogue with their team members around this incredibly important area.

Mental wellbeing is important

The increased reports of deteriorating mental wellbeing amongst business owners and directors as a result of COVID-19: 48% reported that they had suffered, and 19% were experiencing problems for the first time. It comes as no surprise that COVID-19 has seen employers take a hit on their own mental health: does this mean that employer and employee agendas are finally aligning?

In many cases, the pandemic has opened up the door to bosses being more willing to discuss mental wellbeing, because the topic now resonates most closely to home. As organisations pivot, replan and evolve out of the business difficulties that the pandemic has posed, this candidness is one thing that we shouldn’t leave behind.

Help from a healthcare provider

When it comes to investing in your team, it really pays to find a third party, impartial health and wellbeing provider, who can provide discreet, safe and accessible services to your team, such as helplines, resources and a counselling facility. The professional support for your team will belie the financial investment required, and the care provided will be professional, compassionate and legally compliant. Don’t overlook the effectiveness of designated and trained Mental Health First Aiders within your organisation, too. In many cases, they can break down barriers, encouraging team members to seek help.

The importance of culture

Employers have a duty to signpost and encourage use of this support, whether from a mental health first aider or a third-party provider. To do so is the start of fostering a culture where employees feel comfortable, encouraged and allowed to talk about their mental health on an ongoing basis.

Cultural setting and cultural shift must always start from the top. When you work at having a more open and honest culture, everyone gets on board with better habits, which then allows individuals and teams to foresee tasks, processes and situations that can be modified to become more conducive to mental wellbeing and productivity: the two most certainly go hand in hand.

Your employees’ responsibility Equally, employees have a duty to feedback transparently on what does and doesn’t work for them. The onus to set and foster a culture may well be on the employer, but employees will have to push past any initial trepidation around being more honest as new and healthier ways of working are developed. (Benenden Health Report)

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