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Employers urged to sign a Workplace Manifesto for mental health at work

Employees are three times more likely to discuss physical ailments than mental health issues at work, according to research by the promoters of a Where's Your Head At? campaign, which has launched a Workplace Manifesto as part of its activities in Mental Health Awareness Week (13-19 May).

A OnePoll survey of 2,000 employed adults found that, on average, 42 per cent of employees feel comfortable discussing prevalent physical conditions, compared to just 14 per cent who feel they can talk about common mental health issues.

The research was commissioned by Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England and Bauer Media UK for the Where’s Your Head At? campaign. It found that: 

  • Around one in ten workers would feel comfortable speaking about self-harm, psychosis, eating disorders, postnatal depression or schizophrenia.
  • Almost 40 per cent of employees would feel able to talk to their manager about cancer, compared with just 12 per cent who feel they could discuss bipolar disorder.
  • People would rather talk about diarrhea (29 per cent) than depression (26 per cent) with their manager.

The campaigners said that the research shows the persisting mental health gap in the workplace. They pointed to first aid skills as a clear indicator of this – more than seven in ten employees know basic physical first aid, such as how to bandage a finger or treat a minor burn, but just over a third (36 per cent) feel confident talking to colleagues about common mental health struggles with stress and depression in the workplace – a basic part of Mental Health First Aid training.

They called for a fundamental change to ensure companies treat mental and physical health equally in the workplace. The Workplace Manifesto calls for leaders to strive for an understanding and commitment to workplace wellbeing. The campaigners are asking employers to sign up as official supporters of the manifesto and to commit to recognising the need to prioritise mental health, build diverse and inclusive workplaces, treat mental and physical health equally and turn mental health awareness into positive action.

“Despite the increased awareness around mental health in the workplace, employees are telling us that there is still a significant gap in how we think and act about physical and mental health at work," said Simon Blake OBE, chief executive of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England. “To address this gap, employers are being encouraged to translate awareness into action and stamp out the stigma of mental ill health in the workplace. The manifesto gives employers the opportunity to show their commitment to protecting and supporting their people’s mental health.”

Karl Simons, chief health, safety and security officer at Thames Water, which has signed up to the Workplace Manifesto, said that the company's mental health first aiders are a catalyst for engagement and have inspired a cultural revolution at Thames Water. "Confidence has grown throughout the company with people now much more willing to come forward, talk and seek support at their time of need, with records showing we’ve had five mental health first aid interventions for every physical one over the last year.”

This article was first published in May 2019.