Mental health transparency increases slightly, but change is slow

Employees in the UK still feel uncomfortable talking about mental health at work, but more employees have now started to speak out when they need support.

This decade has been turbulent for workforces around the world as the pandemic injected disruption and anxiety into people's lives, and the cost-of-living crisis only bubbled further panic and uncertainty to the surface.

But, despite recognition that these stressors contribute to growing mental health problems around the globe, the stigma continues to hold people back from getting the help they need, as many employees in the UK do not feel comfortable discussing those issues at work, according to new research.

The research as part of Nuffield Health's 2023 Healthier Nation Index found that 35% of UK adults surveyed said they called in sick due to poor mental health but gave another reason, according to a news release from the charity.

Censuswide, which conducted the research in February and March, used a sample of 8,000 nationally representative respondents across the UK.

"Anxiety is a natural response, particularly in these current times of uncertainty. It's important to become aware of when we may need additional support with emotions such as anxiety so that it does not negatively impact our lives," the release said.

However, Nuffield Health, which is the UK's largest healthcare charity, also found that some results "suggest a positive shift in how employees are communicating with their workplaces about their emotional wellbeing", compared to the previous year, the release said. While 35% never disclosed the real reason for their absence, this is a 4-percentage-point decrease from 2022.

"Over 1 in 4 (29%) of people now feel comfortable enough to openly disclose to their employer if they need time off due to poor mental health," the release said. "Whilst this still indicates that stigma remains a barrier … it is a promising sign that people are beginning to speak out when they need more rest, emotional support, and time away from their desks."

Genevieve Hawkins, a business leader based in Melbourne, Australia, who wrote a book on mental health in the workplace, said leaders need to understand how they interact with employees and make sure that they are designing work in a way that's reasonable for people and not contributing to poor health outcomes.

"If they want to have a sustainable business long term, achieving the goals that they want to achieve, they actually have to have mentally healthy people in the workplace, and their responsibility therefore is to understand how they impact that," Hawkins said.

Another recent survey from Aviva, a UK-based multinational insurance company, found that only 10% of UK employees who have experienced certain mental health conditions sought help from their line manager (up 1 percentage point from the 2020 study), according to a news release from the company.

The research was conducted by Censuswide on behalf of Aviva in January, incorporating the views of 1,001 employers defined as senior managers or above and 2,005 employees defined as middle managers or below.

While there has been a slight increase in transparency, change is slow. Fourteen per cent discussed their mental health with a work colleague (up 2 percentage points), and 5% spoke to human resources (up 1 percentage point), the release said.

Stigma and feelings of uncertainty around opening up about mental health conditions makes it difficult for employees to access support. This is why it is important for leaders to start the dialogue and talk to employees about what resources are available to them, said Liza Robbins, chief executive at Kreston Global.

"Many companies actually have important benefits in place, but their leaders don't communicate to their employees what is there and how to access it," Robbins said. "It is important for leaders to really dig into what is available and be very clear with team members about what is there and how to leverage these support systems."

Resources on implementing mental health initiatives in the workplace are available from AICPA & CIMA, together as the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants.

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