How to tackle mental health in the workplace as a manager and colleague

Mental health is a critical part of an employee’s well-being. But according to the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, approximately one in six adults experienced a common mental disorder like depression or anxiety in any given week.

This striking figure underlines the need for workplaces to create environments where employees feel comfortable reaching out for support.

“Stress or anxiety can be caused by a combination of factors and is often a split between issues in someone’s home life and work life,” said Declan Clear, Student Experience and Wellbeing Officer at UCL School of Management.

“Sometimes it can take having a bad day at home and then coming into work to really push someone to want to talk about their problems.”

The stigma associated with mental health continues to be a barrier to accessing necessary services. Many people can be affected by these stigmas, but men in particular appear to be more affected.

“Social conditioning has, over time, made it more ‘socially acceptable’ for women to come forward and say ‘I’m not feeling emotionally well,’ whereas men often have to just deal with it and ‘man up’.”

To help identify the ways in which managers and coworkers can offer support for colleagues who may be struggling, Clear discussed how workplaces are actively addressing mental health care and offered advice on how to help individuals in need.

How prevalent are mental health conditions in workplaces?

According to a report released by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), approximately 595,000 workers suffered from work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2017/18 (PDF, 793 KB). The report describes work-related stress as a harmful reaction that people have due to pressure and demands placed on them at work, such as tight deadlines, too much responsibility, loss of managerial support, organisational changes, and violence. While overall numbers have remained relatively unchanged the past two decades, there have been signs of rising rates in recent years.

Percentage of mental illness diagnoses in the workplace

Go to tabular version of data about mental illness diagnoses in the workplace.

Work-related stress accounted for nearly 60% of mental illness diagnoses in the workplace from 2013-2015, according to The Health and Occupation Research General Practitioners network, which monitors the incidence and trends in work-related illness in the U.K. Go to a tabular version at the bottom of this page for the number of cases of work-related mental illness in 2013-2015 in the U.K.

Industries that showed higher-than-average rates of work-related stress, depression, or anxiety included education, human health and social work activities, and public administration and defense. And women reported more cases than men – 1,950 cases per 100,000 workers compared to 1,370 cases per 100,000 male workers.

Clear said those numbers may not be entirely accurate.

“Men are indirect in how they tell you about something [and whether something is wrong],” he explained. “With male colleagues, based on my experience here in the U.K. and Ireland, there is a huge issue around getting them to talk about mental health concerns.” 

The cost of poor mental health for employers is significant. Some 15.4 million working days were lost due to stress, depression or anxiety in 2017/18, according to the HSE report. In that period, stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 44% of all work-related ill health cases.

How to address mental health in the workplace

“By taking mental health seriously, you can build a better team. You can be a better boss, and you can be a better colleague,” Prince William said in September 2018 as he introduced Mental Health at Work, an online resource to help employees and employers address mental health care needs. “We need to stop people feeling as if they have to hide, and we need to make sure anyone with any responsibility for others at work knows what to do."

Taking employee mental health into consideration can help cultivate a tolerant and supportive workplace environment. Employers are required by law to assess the risk of stress-related illness (PDF, 168 KB) resulting from work activities and to take measures to control that risk. But to address rampant stress or anxiety among employees, workplaces need to identify the root causes.

The HSE has established the Management Standards (PDF, 180 KB) approach to supporting employees’ mental health care by requiring managers, employees, and their representatives to work collaboratively. To begin the process, workplaces need to understand the six areas of work that can harm employee health:

Demands: Are workloads too demanding? Is the work environment positive?

Control: Do employees feel they have a say in how they work?

Support: Do employees feel encouraged? What resources do organisations provide?

Role: Do people have clearly defined roles?

Change: Are organisational changes communicated and managed well?

Relationship: Do workplaces promote positivity? How is bad behaviour addressed? 

Organisations can help determine which areas may be contributing to workplace mental health issues by surveying employees and conducting exit interviews. Once those high priority issues have been singled out, managers can work directly with employees and their representatives to determine a plan to improve problematic areas.

The HSE recommends recording not only the actions organisations take to address issues, but also how they measure whether these actions are successful. Organisation leaders should continuously monitor implementation of the plan and review its effectiveness.

How managers can support individual employees

While the HSE’s approach can help tackle larger issues related to workplace stress, managers should also be able to deal with individual issues.

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) is a national organisation that provides free and impartial information and advice to employers and employees on all aspects of workplace relations and employment law. ACAS has developed extensive recommendations for managers who are managing employees with mental health conditions, including: 

  • Recognise common signs and symptoms of mental illness.
  • Know when and how to intervene.
  • Know what support is available to managers and employees within the organisation.
  • Be approachable, available and encouraging.
  • Tailor management style to treat team members as individuals and identify their needs.
  • Manage assignments so employees are not overloaded or facing excessive deadlines.
  • Meet regularly with each team member to check on work progress, identify challenges and plan for support.

How colleagues can support each other

Sometimes fellow colleagues are actually better equipped than managers to identify mental health issues that may arise with a coworker. Employees can take advantage of workshops and training designed to help colleagues with mental health issues. 

“Training as many people in your department in mental health first aid and encouraging people to speak about mental health is so important,” Clear said.

The training provides an overview of depression, suicide, schizophrenia and eating disorders. Those in training learn to use the MHFA Action Plan:

  • Approach, assess, and assist.
  • Listen non-judgmentally.
  • Give support and information.
  • Encourage appropriate professional help.
  • Encourage other support.

Above all else, talking about mental health is key, Clear said. When talking to an employee about their mental health, he advises colleagues to:

  • Avoid looking at your phone or computer when someone is talking with you.
  • Acknowledge you are hearing the individual with an occasional, gentle nod of the head.
  • Avoid making comparisons. Emotions are an individual experience. Don’t say, “I know exactly what you’re going through.”
  • Let them know that it’s okay not to be okay.

“The ability to just speak about the problem normalises it,” he explained. “If you hold it back and build it up, it will lead to problems.”

Helpful resources for mental health

  • Every Mind Matters: Mental health site offering tips, tools and apps to improve mental health.
  • Mental Health at Work: Information and toolkits to help employers and employees.
  • Mental Health First Aid England: The organisation offers training and consultancy, downloadable toolkits and more.
  • Mental Health Foundation: Downloadable guide on how to support mental health at work.
  • Mind: Site offers useful information, including A-Z of mental health, helplines, tips for everyday living.
  • Restore: This mental health charity in Oxfordshire offers training and employment coaching.
  • Rethink Mental Illness: London charity offers employment training and helps with interview skills and managing health conditions.
  • SANEline: This hotline is available 16:30 p.m.-22:30 p.m. daily for those needing to talk to someone. +44 (0)30 0304 7000.
  • Shout Crisis Text Line: For those finding it easier to text when in crisis: Text 85258.
  • Talking Toolkit – Preventing Work-Related Stress (PDF, 32 MB): This guide from HSE helps managers start the conversation about preventing work-related stress.
  • WHO Mental Health in the Workplace information sheet offers tips to employers.
  • #WORKRIGHT: HSE’s Go Home Health campaign website addresses workers’ health issues and aims to bring various industry, professional and unions together to raise awareness and best practices.

The following section contains tabular data from the graphic in this post.

Mental illness diagnoses in the workplace Back to graphic

Diagnoses % of all diagnoses
Other Stress 59
Anxiety/depression 35
Alcohol and drug abuse 3
Other diagnoses 2
Other stress symptoms 1
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) 1

Citation for this content: The UCL Online MBA