Talking to anyone, even family and close friends, about a mental health problem can be incredibly daunting however talking to people in a workplace about your challenges can cause even greater anxiety and concern.
You may be concerned that opening up might leave your job in jeopardy if it raises concerns with your employer that you might not be able to handle the job or might require additional support. Some people also worry that disclosure might alienate them from their colleagues whether due to prejudice or being seen as receiving special treatment.
The aim of this article is to talk about the benefits for both employers and employees about opening up about mental health at work and also to give some information about your legal rights regarding disclosure both when applying for a new job and in current employment. The ultimate goal is to hopefully encourage more people to speak out and get the support they are entitled to in the workplace.
* Much of the information in the article, particularly around legal rights is specific to the UK and I would hugely appreciate any comments from people in other countries offering alternative information about local support systems.
Gauging the Number of People Who Would Talk to an Employer about Mental Health
As a starting point to this article I wanted to get an idea of the percentage of people who would feel comfortable in talking to an employer or colleagues about their mental health issues.
I ran a poll on Twitter and asked for friends on Facebook to also contribute. I ran the poll for 24 hours and had 160 respondents from across the world. The results can be seen below:
I’m writing a blog post / guide about talking to your employer / colleagues about having a mental health condition and wanted to get a rough idea of % of people who would / wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about it. Comments on why (either way) would be hugely appreciated!
— Mike (@Fearless_Shultz) October 12, 2018
The results although saddening were pretty much what I expected with 43% saying that they wouldn’t feel comfortable talking to anyone at work.
It was at least positive that the overall majority would feel comfortable talking to at least someone whether it was just HR or their manager. I had actually expected these two options to be the other way around with more people being comfortable talking to just a smaller group.
In addition to the votes, there were quite a few comments from both the yes’es and no’s. A number of people stated that they wouldn’t feel comfortable talking to HR because of a perception that HR are only there to protect the company rather than the employee.
not hr imo. They are there to protect the company not you.
— Meek Earl Grey (@syndk8) October 12, 2018
The department name "Human Resources" alone should be enough to let anyone know what the mindset towards the workers is.
— Anthony Randall (@tonyxrandall) October 12, 2018
Attitudes to HR I guess are formed by your own personal experiences. I am incredibly fortunate to work in a company which has an hugely supportive management and HR team however I have also experienced working for companies who were less than supportive. Fortunately my negative experiences have been relatively mild compared to some of those relayed:
People talk about how self employment feels less secure. I dunno where they've been working but I'm the only person I can trust not to lay myself off 2 days before Thanksgiving, ya know?
— Anthony Randall (@tonyxrandall) October 12, 2018
I opened up a few years back about a few personal issues I had. I ended up having some time off, even the quality of my work had dropped. Rather than be supportive, they called me in and sacked me. Not only was I sleeping rough, I was now jobless. Luckily, I made a turn a round:)
— Carl Ashfield (@carlashfield) October 13, 2018
I can completely understand why anyone who has had negative experiences with HR or other departments when talking about their issues would be reluctant to do so in a future role, particularly if the impact was as severe as losing a job as a result. I am sure anyone who has had this reaction would also have great empathy if one of their own employees came to them in a similar situation.
I was glad to also see comments from who would feel comfortable in talking about their own issues and would be supportive if an employee came to them.
Never worked for a company HAVE had a (quite new) staff member approach re: a mental health issue they had. Hope I dealt with it okay (listened, asked what they needed to help & said I had their back & happy to chat anytime). Seemed to help as they settled in really well after 🙂
— Mike Gracia (@MikeGracia_) October 13, 2018
I agree…having issues doesn't embarrass me. Only the very boring amongst us are without problems.
— Julie Joyce (@JulieJoyce) October 12, 2018
What is the Scale of Mental Health Problems in the UK Workplace?
There were approximately 32.21 million people in work in the UK between September and November of last year according to the Office for National Statistics.
The mental health charity Mind estimates that 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem each year and figures from the Mental Health Foundation state that gives the following statistics.
- 1 in 6.8 people are experience mental health problems in the workplace (14.7%).1
- Women in full-time employment are nearly twice as likely to have a common mental health problem as full-time employed men (19.8% vs 10.9%).
- Evidence suggests that 12.7% of all sickness absence days in the UK can be attributed to mental health conditions.
The figures on employment from the National Statistics Office and those from the Mental Health Foundation suggest that somewhere around 4.7 million people in the UK workforce and if the poll results are representative of a large number of people then over 2 million of those would not seek help at work.
A larger survey by the Mental Health Foundation found that a fairly similar percentage (38%) of people working in the UK would be concerned about revealing a mental health issue due to concerns about job security and prospects. This study also gave the following statistics:
- A further 17 % said they were worried they would face negative judgement from colleagues.
- 45% said they would be likely to make up an excuse such as stomach ache or back problems for absence if they needed to take time off work for mental health reasons.
- Worryingly, one in five workers (20%) said they have seen the label of mental health misused against co-workers.
- 11% have been victims of abuse at work as a direct result of a mental health issue.
Why Should Employers Care About Mental Health
One of the key the reasons employers need to take a forward thinking approach to mental health in the workplace is that it helps a company to become more attractive to potential new employees. Some of the top people in many professions (particularly the tech industry) have issues and are much more likely to go to a company which is going to care for their well being.
As well as gaining a competitive advantage by having the best and most engaged staff, there are a number of financial incentives to take a caring and supportive view of employee health. A report from the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health highlights the following points as part of a business case for improved mental health support in the workplace:
£8.4 billion a year in sickness absence. The average employee takes seven days off sick each year of which 40% are for mental health problems. This adds up to 70 million lost working days a year, including one in seven directly caused by a person’s work or working conditions.
£15.1 billion a year in reduced productivity at work. ‘Presenteeism’ accounts for 1.5 times as much working time lost as absenteeism and costs more to employers because it is more common among higher-paid staff.
£2.4 billion a year in replacing staff who leave their jobs because of mental ill health.
This paper was written in 2007 and it is likely that these costs to businesses have only increased in the last 11 years.
One of those to comment on my post was Paddy Moogan Paddy is a co-founder of digital agency Aira and sent me a link to an article about what they are doing to help support the mental well being of their staff by working with a company called Sanctus who have a mission to change the perception of mental health in the workplace.
The Benefits of Telling an Employer About Your Mental Health Issues
Sometimes you really don’t have an option. When I was 18 / 19 I spent a brief period of time in the Army and as a result of various circumstances at the time I started self-harming and ultimately taking several overdoses and was admitted to hospital on a number of occasions which made it kind of hard to hide the fact that I was having issues! On another occasion I was working in a highly stressful work environment and was signed off sick by my doctor for 2 weeks (which was extended to a month which again made disclosure pretty much a must)
In such extreme cases the severity of the circumstances make it impossible to not talk about your problems with your employer however there are many people who suffer in silence and try to soldier on, letting either their work performance or personal life (or both) suffer as a result which ultimately does no one any favours.
Relief of Stress and Anxiety
If you are suffering from mental health issues that you feel are impacting your work performance then feelings of guilt and anxiety can quickly build up. For me personally I was worried about being seen as not committed to my job, having a lax attitude towards internal deadlines and being generally uncaring about my work which is very far from the truth.
Whilst having mental health challenges should never be used as a way to purposefully under-perform and not deliver, having colleagues understand that these things are not intentional and that you do take your obligations seriously can be hugely beneficial in reducing stress and anxiety, help better manage expectations and ultimately improve your performance.
During a particularly low period for me, when I was working from home a lot, I sent out this email to everyone in the office:
I feel at the moment like I should buy a red and white striped jumper and matching woolly hat.
In case anyone doesn’t get the reference, I am referring to the fact that it has been difficult to spot me in the Leeds office over the past few months.
Everyone has been incredibly kind, patient and accommodating of my sporadic time in the office and put up with numerous delays and shifts in deadlines and I feel like it’s only fair to try and give a bit of an explanation.
I’ve had a few struggles with mental health over the years and a few years ago I was diagnosed with a condition called Generalised Anxiety Disorder and went for a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which helped massively at the time.
Over the last year I’ve had a few unfortunate life events which seem to have set me back a bit and a few months ago I started on medication for anxiety and depression. The timing is almost funny as I have never loved working anywhere as much as I do at B3 and it feels more like a big extended family than a set of colleagues.
Apparently getting anxiety / depression meds dosages right is not yet an exact science (quote from my doctor this morning) and whilst I’ve had some really good results mentally from the meds I’ve been on recently, I’ve had some fairly unpleasant physical side effects. I’ve been changed now to a different course of medication and hopefully should start feeling much better over the next few days and aim to be back in the office on Monday.
I wanted to send this email in part to say thank you to everyone who has been so patient with me, to apologise to anyone who has had to shift delivery dates due to me not getting things finished in time and also to try and help remove some of the stigma associated to mental health issues. Our Vitality health cover has some awesome support options including a 6 month subscription to https://www.bigwhitewall.com/v2/Home.aspx?ReturnUrl=%2f
I’ll catch up with everyone who is waiting on things from me individually after this. But thanks again everyone and I look forward to hopefully being back up to full speed very soon!
(hits send -EEP!)
As you can maybe tell from the penultimate line, I was rather nervous about sending out this fairly personal email and immediately started to panic about whether I had done the right thing. Within the hour I got back around 30 responses of encouragement including some of the comments below:
This email is brilliant, thank you for sharing it with everyone, I hope you’re on the mend
Just read your email, thank you for sharing such a personal story and thank you for helping kick down the stigma associated with mental health!
You’re so brave for sharing this with us all, but I want to thank you for doing so – as I agree with you, it’s so important to remove this stigma attached with mental health. It’s ok to talk – and you’ve proved just that!
Honestly takes a lot of balls and honesty to be that open about personal things in life. I think also for those who suffer with similar things in silence, it will help to know that they aren’t alone.
Mike, what a lovely email – thanks for sharing your story, I was watching something on BBC last night about mental health and it got me thinking about how everyone goes on about ‘reducing the stigma’ but what does that actually mean – and then your email landed in my inbox!
It was pretty emotional reading through all the replies that I got but made a huge difference and really helped pull me out of the slump I was in and made me work even harder to get back on track.
Obviously mine was a bit of an extreme approach, not one for everyone and the kind of responses that you get will depend entirely on the company you work in but you may well be surprised how many people are either facing similar issues or have close family members who do.
Asking for Adjustments
If your mental health challenges are classed as a disability that disadvantages you then your employer is legally obliged under the equality act to consider making reasonable adjustments to your working conditions to help you perform optimally.
Obviously they cannot do this unless you disclose your condition so if you do want to request changes then you will need to speak to your boss or at least someone within the company. Some of the changes that you can propose include the following:
- changes to your working area
- changes to your working hours
- spending time working from home
- being allowed to take time off work for treatment, assessment or rehabilitation temporarily re-allocating tasks you find stressful and difficult
- getting some mentoring.
What is considered “reasonable” is relative to the company you are working for and your role. You can find more information here
Something I have found particularly helpful in my current job is simply having to flexibility to work from home when my mood is especially low. Often when I request to work from home it’s not that I an mentally or physically incapable of working on my current task but just that I am struggling with feeling unable to face the world on that particular and having the ability to carry on working in the environment that is right for me at the time is incredibly helpful.
In contrast to this, I once worked at a company where I was placed in the middle of a busy call centre even though I was not customer facing or taking calls. I had a particularly complex task to finish for a deadline and requested one day of working from home to be able to work without distraction and was told that I would need to take that day as holiday.
I also asked to be allowed to wear headphones to listen to music to cut out the noise but was told I couldn’t because that would make other people also want to wear headphones. That oddly enough is the company where I was signed off from work with stress…
Better Work Place Relationships
One of the biggest benefits I’ve found in being open with colleagues at work about my mental health is getting an incredible insight into the lives of others and how they are dealing with either their own issues or those of family and friends.
Some of these have been shared publicly and others in private conversations and it has really made me feel much closer to people and makes the office feel more like a family than just a collection of people that I work with.
When to Tell An Employer About a Mental Health Issue
There are three distinct points when you might talk about your mental health issues to an existing or potential employer:
- When applying for the job
- After accepting an offer
- When already working in a job
The primary consideration for the first two points is whether you have an existing condition that is unrelated to the new job. If you have never had any problems in the past then you probably won’t have anything to consider disclosing.
Disclosure at Application / Interview Stage
If you do have an existing condition, it is important to be honest with yourself and fair to your potential employer by considering your current state and whether you genuinely feel that you could cope with the role. Getting your dream job and then not being able to carry it out because you applied at the wrong time could be devastating to your confidence and harm your chances in applying for jobs in the future.
As well as considering your own mental state and capability to do the job, it’s important to research the company that you are applying to and make sure they are a good fit. Most applicants look into the company in terms of what they do as a business but you should also look at how they treat employees and how seriously they take staff well being.
There are various websites such as Glassdoor which allow past and present employees to review a company anonymously and doing this kind of research at application stage can help filter out companies that don’t seem to be particularly supportive of the well being of their staff.
If you don’t feel comfortable directly speaking about your own challenges at the interview stage you can always ask leading questions to try and get an idea of how a potential employer might react to disclosure of an existing condition.
One example might be ask if the company work with organizations such as Acas to look after the well being of their employees.
The type of benefits package that is on offer can also be a good indicator with things such as private health insurance, company socials, membership of services such as Perkbox are also suggestive of a forward thinking company.
Your Rights When Applying for a Job
Generally speaking, recruiters and potential employers are not allowed to ask about your health at the application / interview stage of the recruitment process. There are certain reasons that an employer can legitimately ask including the following:
- Finding out whether you will be able to take an assessment for the job
- Finding out whether you need reasonable adjustments to the application process
- Establishing if you have the particular disability required for the job
- Thinking about how your mood changes throughout the week and whether might be beneficial to work from home on certain days to break up the week
- If driving in busy traffic causes you anxiety and makes you reluctant to leave the house, suggesting alternative working hours that help you avoid rush hour
- If you are constantly worried about your performance and your managers perception of you, request regular catch up meetings to discuss your performance and avoid anxiety building up
- Starting on a course of medication
- Starting the process of going back for more therapy
- Improving my diet
- Getting more (some) exercise
You can learn more on the Mind page about discrimination when applying for a job
As also stated on the Mind site if you are asked about your health and don’t get the job and you feel that your disclosure may have been a contributing factor then you can pursue a discrimination case It may give you confidence to know that you do have some protection even if you haven’t yet got the job!
Ultimately it will normally be your decision but if you are unsure what to do for the best then there are some great agencies out there that you can speak to first to get some advice including Mind, Remploy and even the Citizens Advice Bureau
After You Have Been Offered the Job
Once a job offer has been made then your employer is legally allowed to ask questions about your health and if they do so at this stage it is important to be honest. If they have any concerns then they should seek further information either in the form of advice from your doctor or by contacting an Occupational Health expert
If a job offer is revoked without proper investigation and explanation then you may again have a case of discrimination to argue.
When you’re already in the job
It may be the case that you didn’t have any mental health issues before starting your current job or you may have had in the past but feel that they are currently under control and shouldn’t affect your performance or well being.
If you do develop problems or find that past issues have been exacerbated (whether because or work related issues or personal circumstances) you should seriously consider talking to someone. As mentioned previously your employer has a duty of care to look after your health (both physical and mental) and they can only do this if they are aware of the problem.
Any good employer should ask what adjustments they can make to improve your state of mind as in the previously mentioned examples. It can be a little bit daunting to be asked on the spot what accommodations could be made and you should try and pinpoint specific things before going into a conversation. Some examples include:
In addition to thinking and talking about what your employer can do for you, it is also really important to be proactive in suggesting what changes you can make yourself. It’s not a one way street and if you expect your employer to look out for you, you also need to look out for yourself.
Some of the actions that I have put in place to try and improve my state of mind include the following:
The point here isn’t so much about what you are actually doing but demonstrating that you are equally committed to improving your mental health and don’t expect your employer to do all the work. I talk more about the impacts of some of the measures listed above in other posts.
Feedback and Questions Appreciated!
As mentioned in my introduction, a lot of the resources and statistics referred to in this post are quite specific to the UK and I would love to get feedback on similar services from other countries so please leave a comment if you know of an alternative for any of the services that I mention.
I would also love to hear any feedback on whether you found this article useful and if there is anything that I’ve missed or could improve. Anything that will help more people feel comfortable in talking about their workplace issues would be hugely appreciated.
Summary of Resources
I’ve linked to quite a lot of sites in this post and just wanted to provide a quick summary of useful sites for anyone considering the best way to talk to an employer about their mental health:
Mind – “We provide advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem. We campaign to improve services, raise awareness and promote understanding.”
The Mental Health Foundation – Good mental health is fundamental to thriving in life. It is the essence of who we are and how we experience the world. Yet, compared to physical health, so little is commonly known about mental ill health and how to prevent it. That must change.
Remploy – Remploy is a leading provider of specialist employment and skills support for disabled people and those with health conditions.
NHS Health at Work – NHS Health at Work is the network of occupational health teams dedicated to ensuring that the NHS has a healthy, motivated workforce that is able to provide the best possible patient care.