Review aims to ensure employees have adequate support, but experts insist broader cultural change is the real answer

Prime minister Theresa May plans to increase the support and resources available to employees suffering mental ill-health in the workplace, as part of a raft of wider measures to address what she called the “hidden injustice” that has seen mental health treated as a “secondary issue” by society.

Lord Dennis Stevenson and Paul Farmer, CEO of mental health charity Mind, will lead a review into how best to ensure employees with mental health issues are supported at work and employers are more involved in their care. And employees will be encouraged to access a new £67m mental health platform that will allow them to check their mental health symptoms online and access digital therapy. The measures were announced as part of what the government said was an annual spending commitment of £1bn, including additional community mental health provision.

Mental ill-health accounts for 23 per cent of NHS activity, costs the British economy £15bn per year in lost productivity and is now the leading cause of long-term sickness in the UK. In November, the CIPD/Halogen Employee Outlook survey found that 47 per cent of staff were uncomfortable disclosing mental health issues to their employer or manager, and 25 per cent felt there was inadequate support for mental health in their workplace.

Farmer said: “Mental health has been on the periphery for too long. Mind welcomes the announcements around a focus on prevention in workplaces and support for people in crisis."  

But while experts welcomed the platform May is giving to mental health, there is concern that a larger cultural change needs to take place inside organisations first. Farmer said that "the proof will be in the difference it makes to the day-to-day experience of the one in four who will experience a mental health problem this year", while others were more direct. 

Nicholas Harrison, who set up Soldier On! – a charity that helps former members of the armed forces with mental health issues find work – and is now director of consultancy Transperformance, said: “It’s great that we’re talking about mental health, but I worry it’s something that’s touched on, then moved on from just as quickly. In my experience, firms need to be much better at consistently helping people take control during periods of change in their lives.

“The problem with mental health is that it’s not new, but a lot of the discussion around it harks from academia, which is then mistranslated at the organisational level. At its essence, jobs need to give employees a much better sense of purpose. And if staff have mental issues affecting them, I still wonder if many firms have the right culture in place so people feel they can report it.”

Research by AXA PPP Healthcare recently found that only 47 per cent of employees would tell their boss the truth if they were taking a sick day because of stress, compared with 88 per cent who would do so if they had flu. Dr Mark Winwood, AXA’s director of psychological services, said: “Training and supporting line managers to recognise and respond to employees affected by mental ill-health is required to give them the confidence to step in and offer their support when it is needed.”