BITC on the importance of discussing mental health in the workplace

Not so long ago, talking about mental health and wellbeing at work would probably be met with a sharp intake of breath and a rapid change of subject. But these days a new openness and understanding have put mental health at the top of the agenda.

Serious questions are now being asked of employers over whether they have joined the journey towards greater openness
Serious questions are now being asked of employers over whether they have joined the journey towards greater openness

Members of the royal family, business leaders and household names have openly discussed their mental health – an issue once shrouded in misconception and fear is no longer simply skimmed over and filed under Do Not Discuss.

But while great strides have been made in raising awareness of the nation’s mental health, serious questions are now being asked of employers over whether they have joined the journey towards greater openness and what steps they are taking to support workers.

In its new Mental Health at Work 2019 report, nationwide responsible business network Business in the Community (BITC) does not pull punches when it comes to calling for urgent change.

The report – the fourth of its kind compiled by the organisation and stridently entitled Time to Take Ownership – points to significant concerns over how mental health is handled in the workplace, with concerns that some employers are simply “tinkering at the edges” of the issue, rather than making crucial sweeping changes.

In a strongly-worded call to action, it warns that it is “not acceptable for employers to be the cause of mental health issues among staff”. It concludes that there is a need for a more ambitious and aspirational approach, with employers taking responsibility for issues linked to poor mental health – such as soaring pressure and presenteeism – and doing something about them.

The demand to act comes against disturbing survey results which show the proportion of Scottish employees who believe their organisation does well in supporting those with poor mental health actually fell from 45 per cent in 2018, to 41 per cent this year.

Meanwhile, those who have experienced poor mental health linked to work rose from 36 per cent last year to 39 per cent. Of that number, 51 per cent said their poor mental health was down to work pressure while –worryingly – 64 per cent of Scottish managers admitted they have had to put the interests of their organisation above staff wellbeing. 

The survey also highlights a gap between what senior management in Scotland think they are achieving in terms of supporting good mental health,  and the perception of staff on the ground: 51 per cent of chief executive and board-level management believe their organisation is doing a good job, compared to 38 per cent of non-management employees. 

In response, BITC – launched 40 years ago by the Prince of Wales to create a more responsible business landscape – is calling for the wellbeing of people ahead of organisational needs.

“What is frustrating is awareness of mental health has risen, but that has not translated to as much action as we would like,” says BITC wellbeing director Louise Aston. 

“A lot of employers are introducing training and other support, but we now need strong leadership to own the root causes of what affects wellbeing at work.

“People who come to work do not expect to be physically injured, and they should also expect not to be psychologically harmed,” she adds. “Too many employers are tinkering at the edges rather than making the fundamental changes needed to improve wellbeing, retention and productivity.”

There’s no getting away from the scale of the issue – some 35 per cent of the Scottish workforce has been formally diagnosed with a mental health condition at some point in their life, while mental health issues are estimated to cost UK employers about

£34.9 billion each year.

The Office for National Statistics’ Labour Force Survey for 2017-18 suggests that some 5.4 million working days were lost to mental health conditions.

Those issues aside, businesses which fail to embed mental health policies in their operations, with flexible working opportunities and positive workplace experiences, may struggle to attract talent and retain staff. There’s also the risk of falling foul of an increasingly tough approach from the Health and Safety Executive towards workplace stress.

The report’s call to action, drawn up in partnership with nine leading organisations and charities, wants UK-wide employers to treat the wellbeing of their workforce as a matter of urgency.

But, says Aston, that need not mean investing in expensive programmes and training sessions. Instead, more openness, parity between mental and physical health, greater accountability and making use of BITC’s Responsible Business Tracker, which is designed to enable organisations to measure their performance across a range of sectors, including health and wellbeing, are a good starting point. 

“It’s about accountability,” Aston adds. “That comes through strong leadership, really knowing this agenda and measuring it so you can’t kid yourself you are doing better than you think you are.

“Middle managers should be appointed on compassion and humanity not just their technical skills. They should be held accountable for the wellbeing of their people. There are employers doing really good things. It’s about not faffing around the edges.”

One business that has placed mental health and wellbeing at the top of the agenda is Lloyds Banking Group. It recently joined forces with 30 other businesses, mental health charities and NGOs – including BITC – to promote a nationwide commitment to tackling these issues. 

The Mental Health At Work Commitment framework sets out six clear standards based on what best practice has shown is needed to make a difference and better equip employers to create an environment where employees can thrive.

According to Fiona Cannon, group director for Responsible Business and Inclusion at Lloyds Banking Group, mental health strategies now run across the business. One element is a plan to train 2,500 colleagues as mental health ‘advocates’ by 2021. The strategy will see them drive cultural change and create an open conversation around mental health issues.

“It’s not about them being mental health professionals,” Cannon insists. “But recognising symptoms and signposting people to the right places for support.”

A resilience programme aimed at uncovering the workplace issues which can trigger mental health problems has been established, plus a portal and series of webinars offering guidance and support. 

“As a result, our employee engagement results have increased by 22 per cent,” she adds. “The work we are doing is having a positive impact on employees and they are more comfortable about talking about mental health at work.

“One in four of us will have some experience of mental health during our lifetime. We have 65,000 colleagues and 20,000,000 customers – that means a large number are dealing with this. It’s a real business issue and a key priority.”

Nevertheless, Cannon is optimistic that businesses are responding to the call. 

She concludes: “There’s a momentum gathering to do this. And the impact on millions of lives could be significant.”

Find out more about Business in the Community’s various responsible business initiatives and its mental health strategies at


This article first appeared in the Vision supplement in the Scotsman – see it in full here.