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/ Overview / News / May 2018 / Mental ill health increasingly taboo at work

Mental ill health increasingly taboo at work

14 May 2018
Mental ill health increasingly taboo at work           
Better protection for workers is vital after Brexit
Research published today shows the stigma associated with mental health in the workplace has grown significantly since 2009 despite the introduction of the Equality Act 2010.
A survey of 550 employers shows that although awareness of mental health issues has more than doubled, half  of employers view staff  with mental health conditions as a ‘significant risk’ to their business, an increase of 10% since 2009.
Over half of employers are reluctant to employ someone with a mental health condition due to a fear of that person being stigmatised by co-workers (56%, up from 51% in 2009). 42% of employers surveyed stated that people with mental health conditions are less reliable, a figure which has nearly doubled since 2009.
The number of employers taking the view that someone who has been off work for more than a few weeks is ‘unlikely to ever fully recover’ has also increased threefold, from 11% in 2009 to 38% in 2017. Furthermore, the proportion of employers disagreeing with this statement has fallen drastically, from 73% to 35%.
There has been a further 17% decline in the number of respondents who would be flexible in offering adjustments or accommodations to someone with mental ill health, despite obligations enshrined in the 2010 Equality Act.
More positively, the survey shows that since the introduction of the Equality Act 2010 there has been a 30% increase in the number of businesses with policies on mental health, with 76% of large companies having policies in place. In comparison, only 25% of small and medium-sized enterprises had workplace mental health policies.
However, motives behind the adoption of mental health policies have come into question. 60% of respondents stated that policies have been adopted to avoid litigation, an increase of 27% since 2009.
The survey has been carried out by Shaw Trust, a national employment charity, who have surveyed attitudes in in 2006, 2009 and 2017.
Impact of Brexit
With ten months left until the UK leaves the European Union, the government has yet to include adherence to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in domestic legislation. As of now, it is only enshrined in European legislation, meaning that after March 2019 this legislation will no longer apply to UK law.
Shaw Trust is calling for the government to strengthen the Equality Act and enshrine the UN Convention for the Rights of people with Disabilities in UK law after Brexit, a move it says is essential to protect the employment rights of people experiencing mental ill health and mental health conditions. 
In response to the findings of the survey the employment charity is calling for the government to strengthen protection for workers with mental health conditions after Britain leaves the European Union as part of a package of measures which includes:
  • Strengthening the Equality Act and enshrining the UN Convention for the Rights of People with Disabilities in post-Brexit Britain.
  • Introducing an Ofsted-style system to increase employer accountability and action through external mental health reporting.
  • Ensuring that individuals with short term or recurring periods of mental ill health are protected by legislation.
  • Incentivising employers to implement the six core standards from 2017’s Stevenson-Farmer mental health review.
  • Better training for line managers to support employees who experience mental health conditions.
  • Investing in a workplace mental health awareness and anti-stigma campaign and employer portal to share information and best practice and access to relevant schemes.
Gemma Hope, Director of Policy, Marketing and Communications, Shaw Trust, said:
“Sadly, mental health remains the last workplace taboo. Whilst our survey shows some progress, the results reflect an entrenching of the stigma experienced by many employees with mental ill health. However, Shaw Trust remains positive that there is a clear will from the government and wider society to tackle the problem.
“We have reached a fork in the road in managing mental health in the workplace, but we hope the measures we propose can help change the way employers work with, and support, colleagues with mental health conditions”.
To download the full report please visit Mental Health at work: Still the last Taboo.

For copies of the full survey contact:  Lee Whitehill 07703 034930
Editor’s notes
Survey sample:
550 respondents
500 senior managers
50 HR directors
244 respondents from employers with between one and 50 employees
83 respondents from employers with between 50 and 249 employees
223 respondents from employers with over 250 employees
Summary of key findings
  1. Increased awareness
Employers in 2017 had a greatly increased awareness of mental health issues. More employers are aware that they employ individuals with mental health conditions than in the previous surveys (2006 and 2009). Awareness of employees with mental health conditions within respondents’ own organisations has more than doubled since 2009, from 21% to 52%, rising from just 11% in 2006.
  1. More workplace mental health policies
There has been a significant increase in the proportion of businesses that have implemented policies on mental ill health and stress in the workplace. In 2017, 52% of businesses surveyed had a policy, up 30% on 2009. Formal policies on mental health are more prevalent in larger businesses than small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). For example, 76% of businesses with over 250 employees have formal stress/mental health policies, compared to 27% of those with 50 employees or fewer.
         Although more employers have adopted formal policies to protect and promote the wellbeing of their workforce, employers’ motivations for implementing these policies were not entirely altruistic. 60% of survey respondents stated that they had adopted these policies to avoid litigation, up from 27% in 2009.
  1. Lack of confidence
Despite increased awareness of mental health at work, employers have a growing lack of confidence in discussing mental health matters with their employees. In 2009, 90% of employers felt comfortable talking about mental health with their staff members. In 2017, this figure was just 64%. In particular, senior managers were less confident about talking to their employees than HR directors, while smaller businesses had lower levels of confidence than larger organisations.
There was also an 11% decline in respondents who feel their managers understand mental health issues between 2009 and 2017. Similarly, there was an 11% decline in the proportion of respondents who feel their organisation supports managers well in dealing with mental health conditions.
Additionally, there was a lack of awareness of the existing support provided by the government to employers. Just 34% of large businesses have heard of Disability Confident, Access to Work or Fit for Work. This figure rose to 53% and 69% in medium and small businesses respectively.
  1. Increase in negative attitudes
          Employers’ increased awareness and ability to manage mental health in the workplace has been accompanied by an increase in negative attitudes and stigma towards those with mental health conditions. Agreement with the statement that people with mental health conditions are less reliable employees has almost doubled since 2009, from 23% to 42%.
Meanwhile, there has been a 17% decline in the proportion of respondents who would be flexible in offering adjustments or accommodations to someone with mental ill health. This is despite employers’ obligations to make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees being enshrined in the law, under the 2010 Equality Act. 
Similarly, the 2017 survey also revealed that 56% (up from 51% in 2009) of employers agree that ‘negative attitudes from co-workers is a major barrier to employing people with mental health conditions.’ Rates of negativity as measured by this metric were highest among larger employers.
The proportion of respondents who feel that ‘employees who have been off work with a mental illness for more than a few weeks are unlikely to ever fully recover’ has increased threefold, from 11% in 2009 to 38% in 2017. Importantly, the proportion who disagree with this statement has also fallen drastically, from 73% to 35%.
About Shaw Trust
Shaw Trust is a charity helping to transform the lives of one million young people and adults each year. Our 3,500 staff and 1,000 volunteers work across the UK and internationally, supporting people to develop their potential and live independently. Our specialist services help young people and adults gain an education, enter work, improve their wellbeing or rebuild their lives. As a charity, we also add value to every service we deliver by investing back into the people and communities we support.
We work with young people and adults experiencing mental ill health through the delivery of a range of employment and wellbeing services. This includes supporting people with mental health conditions to find and sustain work through the nationally commissioned DWP Work and Health Programme, as well as delivering services at the local level including Live Well Kent, Suffolk Employment Service and Aim4Work.

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