Supporting mental health at work

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Supporting mental health at work

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Mental health issues affect one in four people in any given year.

An issue can stem from things that have built up gradually over time or could occur suddenly as a result of a specific event in someone’s life. They range from common problems such as depression and anxiety to rarer issues such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Mental health issues were the primary reason for employee absence during 2021. According to GoodShape’s UK PLC 2021 Workforce Health Report, poor mental health accounted for 19 per cent of all lost working time across the UK, followed by confirmed cases of COVID which represented 16 per cent.

In nearly every industry, mental health issues such as stress, anxiety and depression were the most common cause of time off work, with the average amount of time off to deal with a mental health issue being 18.8 days, and for COVID-related reasons, just 5.8 days. The report also found that 54% of workers who take two or more mental-health-related absences will go on to leave their employer.

Poor mental health not only has a huge impact on the individual employees but also has severe repercussions for employers including increased sickness absence, burnout, presenteeism (where employees continue to work despite being unwell), staff turnover and decline in motivation and productivity.

How can employers prevent poor mental health at work?


Breaking down the stigma around mental health and promoting an open and caring culture where employees can discuss problems openly without fear of being stigmatised is an essential building block for workplace mental health. Mental health awareness should be promoted across the workforce enabling employees to feel comfortable sharing their problems and helping managers to have the confidence to have these conversations.

Many employers are creating peer-to-peer support networks to help employees talk through their problems when they arise. In January 2020, Ashtons introduced a mental health first aid and support training programme to train colleagues throughout the firm as mental health first aiders (MHFAs) who are on hand for support with advice and informal chats. This added level of support provides employees with the option to discuss issues openly with MHFAs before approaching a line manager.

Training and support

Managers are normally the first point of contact for employees who have concerns and so they should be trained to have conversations about mental health and have the ability to recognise the early signs of mental health problems. They don’t need to become experts but should be able to flag issues and signpost the support available. Managers may find having conversations about mental health difficult –training can help to build confidence in supporting employees and starting conversations when they suspect a team member is experiencing poor mental health. If a team member discloses an issue, it’s essential that managers are able to talk with them about their needs.

Work organisation

Unmanageable workloads are a key cause of burnout and work-related stress. Review job descriptions (and what’s happening in reality) to ensure that expectations are clear and realistic and encourage regular ongoing conversations with employees outside of appraisals to check in on how they feel about their work and in general – how the employee is.

How can employers support employees with mental health when issues arise?

If an employee discloses they are experiencing poor mental health or where a manager suspects, they should:

  • Talk to the employee at an early stage and ask questions in an open, exploratory and non-judgmental way. If an employee does not want to discuss their problems with the manager, advise that they speak to someone else such as their GP, an occupational health professional or a counsellor through the company’s employee assistant programme if they have one.
  • If the employee has a disability, seek guidance from the employee’s GP about what reasonable adjustments you can make to help them at work.
  • If the employee needs to take time off work to recover, stay in contact with them to check on their wellbeing, offer support and keep them updated on any relevant changes happening at work. Consider and agree with the employee whether less or more frequent contact is appropriate during their time off.
  • Before the employee returns to work, discuss their reintegration and whether any changes have been made to their role, taking into account any reasonable adjustments. Consider a plan to set out when the employee will be ready to carry out their duties as before if possible and existing management processes to review performance, needs, etc. can be resumed.

The law

Mental health problems can be considered a disability under the Equality Act 2010 if the following apply:

  • it has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on your ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities
  • it lasts for at least a year or is expected to.

If any employee has a disability, their employer has a responsibility to make reasonable adjustments to support their needs. However, even where a mental health condition is not classed as a disability under the definition of the Act, it’s best practice to make appropriate changes to an employee’s work to support them in employment.

Contact our HR Consultants today

If you need specific advice or would like further information, please get in touch with our specialist team by filling out our online enquiry form or by calling 0333 222 0989.


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