Mental health in the workplace: the national picture

Mental health in the workplace

 13th January 2020

As mental health awareness has grown in recent years, so too has our understanding of the factors that can cause problems to develop, and the steps we must take as a society to prevent this from happening.

However, despite a growing awareness and appreciation of mental health and its associated issues, stress is still a key issue for employees.

The risk of developing mental health problems is increased by a range of factors, including work-related stress. But mental health can also be protected, for example by good employment practices, and strong social and community connections.

There has never been greater awareness of the intrinsic link between employee mental wellbeing and business productivity than there is today.

Equally, there has been an evolution in our collective expectation of what employers should do to support the mental health of their workers.

This article provides a national picture of mental health in the workplace, and highlights easily applicable tips for both employees and employers to get started on the path to good personal and professional wellbeing.


The Thriving at Work report (2017) highlights that the UK faces a significant mental health challenge at work.

While there are more people at work with mental health conditions than ever before, 300,000 people with a long-term mental health problem lose their jobs each year - and at a much higher rate than those with physical health conditions.

Furthermore, around 15% of people at work have symptoms of an existing mental health condition.

The human cost is huge, with poor mental health having an impact on the lives of many individuals and those around them. This manifests itself in a variety of ways - both at work and at home - and impacts a person’s ability to manage other elements of their personal life.

Then there is the ultimate and disastrous human cost of loss of life through suicide. We know that rates of poor mental health and suicide are higher for employees in certain industries. For instance, male construction workers are found to be at the greatest risk of suicide compared to any other profession in the UK (Mates in Mind, 2019), with male site workers three times more likely to commit suicide than the average male in the UK.

Beyond being the ethical thing to do, an employer who actively cares for the emotional, physical and social wellbeing of their workers can also expect tangible business benefits. Indeed, the Thriving at Work report demonstrated that a failure to appropriately support employees could cost businesses as much as £42 billion per year, with a cost to the entire economy amounting to £99 billion in lost output.

Additionally, the Lancet (2017) has also published findings from a study in the Australian Fire Service, which found that a mental health training programme for managers could lead to a significant reduction in work-related absence, with an associated return on investment of £9.98 for each pound spent on such training.

The full review can be found here.

Causes of stress

Because stress is endemic across the UK workforce, it’s important for employers to understand which factors contribute most to their workers feeling this way. A recent Investors in People survey (2019) found that the greatest pressure felt by workers was workload, with 40% claiming that having too much on their agenda resulted in stress. The survey also revealed that a significant proportion of the labour market would feel that their mental health would be better supported at work if their organisation was to provide more training for line managers.

The gender factor

The IIP report also revealed some interesting trends in how men and women explore their mental health. Men are less likely to say they felt stressed, less likely to take this stress home and also less likely to feel like they could talk to their colleagues about their mental health. In contrast, 83% of women admit to feeling stressed at work and wanting a more trustworthy manager, rather than a 3% pay rise. 

The fact that men and women experience their mental health in different ways, means that employers must ensure flexibility in the workplace support that is available. A man suffering from stress may not want to talk to a colleague, but he might like to know that there is anonymous support available.

The age factor

Not only did the IIP survey show clear trends in how gender can affect how workers think about their mental wellbeing, it also suggested that age is a factor in determining how we as employees consider this aspect of our health.

84% of 18-24-year olds said that they had experienced stress at work. This trend was mimicked across other questions, where nearly half (48%) of this demographic admitted that stress had forced them to consider leaving their current job.


The last few years have seen significant media attention falling on the strains faced by certain sectors and industries in the UK economy. Although several economic indicators have suggested that our economy is stabilising while unemployment falls, there are still major challenges facing the health and social care sectors. Meanwhile trade-based businesses have been waiting to hear how Britain’s decision to leave the EU will impact their operations. Accordingly, there are clear sectoral trends revealing which factions of the labour market are feeling the pressure

Top 5 sectors with most stressed employees:

  • Social care 87%
  • Healthcare 87%
  • Recruitment & HR 86%
  • Charity 86%
  • Law 85%

Poor management as a stressor:

  • Law enforcement 47%
  • Creative arts 41%
  • Hospitality 33%

 Source: Mental Health at Work (2019), IIP

Deloitte (2017) have produced an analysis that considers the costs to employers associated with presenteeism, absenteeism and staff turnover due to mental health problems.
The report highlights that across industries the highest per-employee annual costs of mental health are in the finance, insurance and real estate (£2,017-£2,564) and public sector health (£1,794-£2,174).

Across the public and private sector, the highest costs are due to presenteeism, driving 47-60% of private sector costs and 65-71% of public sector costs.
Presenteeism is defined as attending work whilst ill (in this case, with poor mental health), and working at reduced productivity. Deloitte estimates that mental health-related presenteeism costs employers up to three times the cost of mental health-related absence. Due to changes in working patterns (remote working) and an increase in perceived job insecurity, the costs of presenteeism have been growing faster than those of absenteeism. 


This analysis can be found at


Top Tips for Employers

  1. Train your line managers in how to support their team’s mental health.
    Across sectors, ages and genders, employees all want managers that they can trust and managers who are capable of offering effective support for their mental health concerns. Many employers know they are missing opportunities to intervene early when employees are struggling, as the stigma of disclosing a mental health condition is still a significant barrier to employees seeking support. A Mental Health First-Aider’s (MHFA) role is to act as a point of contact and reassurance for a person who may be experiencing a mental health issue or emotional distress in the workplace. In the same way we learn about physical First Aid, Mental Health First Aid teaches you how to recognise those crucial warning signs of mental ill-health. Find out more:

  2. Listen to what employees want.
    Each workplace in each industry will have specific demands and stresses acting on its employees. It is vital that as a responsible employer, you recognise what these are and mitigate the impact. Listening to how employees feel about these stresses might be the most effective way of neutralising them.

  3. Everyone experiences mental health in different ways.
    This means that there is no one-size-fits-all approach for employees who are dealing with a mental health concern. Therefore, ensure that there is flexibility and the ability to tailor solutions in the support you offer.

  4. Make positive workplace changes – such as setting clear goals, offer flexible working options, recognise and reward, understand the circle of influence and control; change the working environment, encourage breaks and fresh air;

  5. Consider your organisational culture.
    Workplace culture and job satisfaction have a big impact on wellbeing and absence. The choices that people make and the behaviours they exhibit are often influenced by the context in which they find themselves. Those behaviours may or may not enhance wellbeing. The context will overtly or covertly place rules and guidance on attitudes and behaviours. As a result, the culture will either positively or negatively affect mental health and wellbeing. To secure a positive work culture an organisation needs to influence and develop its managers to adopt behaviours that persuade employees to undertake tasks in a positive and empowering way.

  6. Signpost to professional help.
    On issues like housing, money or addiction, speaking to an expert may help and ensuring that anonymous support is easily available is essential.

  7. Review HR policies that support sustainable wellbeing.
    Examples of the kinds of interventions that have been implemented to promote health and wellbeing include:
    . improving working lives through employment policies such as flexible working, absence management and dignity at work (after all, 2 in 3 of us are looking for a better work life balance, IIP 2019);
    . creating a safe place to work through health and safety policy and initiatives;
    . decreasing the interval between treatment and return to work through occupational health referral and advice;
    . career development through Personal and Professional Development (PPD;
    . human resource initiatives such as widening participation and equality and diversity;
    . personal support through the Staff Counselling Service.


Top Tips for Employees

  1. If you are stressed, speak up
    It is vital that if you are suffering from a mental health concern, such as stress, you speak to a colleague or line manager as soon as you feel comfortable to do so. Employers can only support their people if they’re aware that they need additional support.

  2.   Be proactive
    If you know how and where your line manager and organisation could better support mental health, gather as much information as you can and present it to change-makers in your organisation. This will also ensure that your employer is given every opportunity to appropriately support your wellbeing. 

  3.  Unlike physical ailments, mental health conditions aren’t always obvious in those who are suffering.
    By encouraging open and honest relationships with colleagues, you’re bringing about the fundamental trust necessary to discuss issues like health and wellbeing.

  1. Explore resilience techniques
    Developing emotional resilience takes effort, but is an investment in your future wellbeing. It includes protecting your physical and psychological health, managing stress, maintaining emotional equilibrium, fostering supportive relationships at both home and work, and having boundaries between home and work life. And there are strategies you can use to develop personal resilience, including mindfulness, thinking skills and reflective supervision.


The last few years have seen unprecedented attention focussed on how organisations should be responsible for supporting the mental health of their employees.

With so many of us reporting that work is a major cause of stress and therefore a trigger for a number of stress-related illnesses, employers are perhaps able to have the greatest impact and scope to make a difference by creating a positive and supportive workplace culture, free from stigma.

Because they have the authority to implement adjustments and influence organisational culture, managers have a key role in fostering positive and supportive attitudes around mental health and wellbeing.


How we can help

Our Leading Well programme and Mental Health First Aid certified workshops are designed to meet the increasing needs of leaders and managers in managing wellbeing issues. We also deliver courses specially designed to support employees in achieving wellness and help them adopt a self-care attitude to their own wellbeing.

Visit or contact us to find out more.

Check out our upcoming workshop dates.