Mental health: Time to break this workplace taboo

by Caroline Garstang Howlett

Today is World Mental Health Day. Today might not be a good day for you, or for a colleague.

Mental health problems are all too common in the workplace and it is the leading cause of sickness absence.

In the UK alone, a staggering 70 million work days are lost each year due to mental health problems, costing employers approximately £2.4 billion per year. Think of the global impact of this.

A culture of silence

Despite one in four adults expected to suffer an episode of depression or similar in any given year, mental health is rarely an open workplace discussion. This can add to increased stress, and all too often, discrimination – perceived or actual.

Start to release the pressure

We have found ourselves living in a culture of “success at all costs.” It sometimes seems that there is no place for average – after all, that’s what most of us are!

From starting school to leaving university the pressure is on to prepare for the workplace, a workplace that is ever changing and unlikely to mirror the expectations that were common on your first day at school!

That said, the future of work will hopefully factor in greater work-life balance – and greater acceptance of the fact that we are people not machines. The trend for empowered scheduling, flexible working and contingent working are becoming more common.

At NGA HR, for example, we have many parents working around the needs of their children and children working around the needs of their aging parents. It is important to make work work well for people and if you do, people will work well for you, because they can!

Mental health threatens the wellbeing of business as much as people

Employers and employees need to be willing to talk about stress, anxiety and depression openly.

This tendency to silence is stifling workforce performance and success. The cost of benefits such as “mental health days” and employee counselling services are far less to a business than a workforce fearing for their job because they’re struggling.

A workplace that is compassionate – and I mean this in no gushy way – is a workplace that breeds loyalty and respect. One bad day can easily be managed. The fear of “being caught out” could eventually lead to many more than one bad day and a serious impact on the business.

Mental health should be treated as any other critical or chronic illness

No one chooses to have mental health problems, may these be stress, anxiety, depression or other conditions, diagnosed or otherwise, but everyone should have the choice to be open and honest about it if they choose to be, and to seek the treatment they require with no fear of reprisal.

Attitudes are slowly changing. There are now high profile campaigns for Alzheimer’s and teenage mental health.

Now, let’s work together to get mental health on the workplace agenda!

You might be fine, but statistics suggest that not everyone you work with is. Depression, stress or anxiety is not a bad day at the office. It is a dark cloud that can make every day seem like it will never end.

Mental health myths and facts

  • Myth: Mental health problems are very rare.
  • Fact: 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem in any given year.
  • Myth: People with mental illness aren’t able to work.
  • Fact: We probably all work with someone experiencing a mental health problem.
  • Myth: Young people just go through ups and downs as part of puberty, it’s nothing.
  • Fact: 1 in 10 young people will experience a mental health problem.
  • Myth: People with mental health illnesses are usually violent and unpredictable.
  • Fact: People with a mental illness are more likely to be a victim of violence.
  • Myth: People with mental health problems don’t experience discrimination
  • Fact: 9 out of 10 people with mental health problems experience stigma and discrimination.
  • Myth: It’s easy for young people to talk to friends about their feelings.
  • Fact: Nearly three in four young people fear the reactions of friends when they talk about their mental health problems.


Stress related facts

  • Stress is more prevalent in public service industries, such as education; health and social care; and public administration and defence.
  • By occupation, jobs that are common across public service industries (such as health; teaching; business, media and public service professionals) show higher levels of stress as compared to all jobs.
  • The main work factors cited by respondents as causing work related stress, depression or anxiety (LFS, 2009/10-2011/12) were workload pressures, including tight deadlines and too much responsibility and a lack of managerial support.