Employees with mental health conditions still experience discrimination in the workplace, according to a recent Our Mental Health At Work commissioned by Business in the Community (BITC). It found that 9 per cent of employees who experienced symptoms of poor mental health experienced disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal. 

Louise Aston, Wellbeing Director at BITC welcomed the Government’s announcement to rethinking their approach to mental health. “Mental health has been ignored by society and business for too long. Anything that will work has to be connected to a well-being strategy,” remarks Aston.  “There is still a long way to go in terms of reaching parity with physical health.”

There is a huge amount to be done in introducing mental health literacy to managers, comments Aston. “It’s also about general training for managers so they can feel confident about having difficult conversations and they know who to signpost people to. Managers aren’t expected to be counsellors but it’s good if they’re trained to spot earning warning signs.”  The training for line managers around mental health should also encompass myth-busting, adds Aston. “There is a lot of myth-busting around mental health that needs to happen.”

Managers can help employees suffering from mental health conditions in a number of ways, says Aston. “There could be issues around making reasonable adjustments to work or allowing them to work flexibly.”

The BITC research found that only 11 per cent of employees discussed a recent mental health problem with their line manager. That’s a disappointing figure on the level of disclosure, remarks Rachel Suff, public policy advisor for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). “Line managers have a role to play in terms of managing people with existing mental health problems. Managers are the ones who have the day-to-day relationship with staff and responsibility for implementing practices that impress on well-being. They also have a duty of care to employees experiencing work-related stress.”

Creating an atmosphere of confidentiality is crucial in helping employees disclose their condition to a manager, advises Loïck Roche, Dean of Grenoble Ecole de Management. “An employee suffering from a mental health issue must feel safe enough to be able to confide about the issue to his or her manager. This means that the person must never feel he or she could lose their job.”

But Suff warns that managers can often be the cause of stress and anxiety in the workplace.  “Managers can have a positive impact in terms of creating the right culture but they need to tackle their own management style if that has a negative impact on the stress levels of employees.”

So what role can managers play in creating a workplace culture which is accepting of mental health issues? Managers help to create the organisational culture through their own management style, reflects Suff. “You need a management style that encourages participation and managers to give positive feedback and listen to employees.”

Aston believes that line managers have a role here but they cannot do it on their own. “Leadership from the top is critical. There is a massive disconnect between how senior bosses think they are behaving and the perception from organisations in the survey. “

However, the level of training given to managers within UK organisations remains disappointing.  The absence management survey conducted by the CIPD in 2016 found that only 22 per cent of employers had trained managers in dealing with mental health issues. “It’s all about treating employees as individuals. Managers need to be open in the conversations they have with their staff and try and encourage people to be open. It’s also about making sure that mental health is not a taboo subject to discuss. Ask open questions to staff such as ‘How are you feeling?’. Don’t be afraid to raise the issue if you’re concerned about an employee.”

The consequences for managers if they ignore team members with a mental health issue are severe, says Roche. “If they don’t understand that an employee has a mental health issue then they could make inappropriate comments or even make fun of the person. These responses are inappropriate and would actually weaken and seclude the person even more. In order for an employee to confide in a manager, they need to feel secure and that they can trust their manager."