This article by Adrian Wakeling of Acas, looks at the future of mental health in an increasingly intense world of work and provides an insight into the increasing need to address cultural and behavioural attitudes to mental health. 

Speaking to mental health campaigner Helen White-Knight recently, I was struck by something she said: “We will hopefully get to a place where people with mental health conditions are respected for the positive attributes they bring to work and not just as people who are waiting to be treated or cured.”

The government has certainly made some welcome moves towards raising the profile of how mental health is managed at work. The new review, chaired by Mind’s Paul Farmer and Lord Stevenson, will be looking at ways in which employees with mental health problems can “thrive in the workplace and perform at their best.”

As the Mental Health Foundation’s new campaign for Mental Health Awareness Week (8-14 May) suggests, one of our key tasks for the future may well be around distinguishing between ‘thriving’ at work with a mental health condition or just ‘surviving’. Acas analysis of calls to our national helpline and research on the ‘Management of mental health at work’ provide some good indicators as to what workplaces need to do to bring about a much needed cultural and behavioral change in how mental health is perceived.

Here are my seven pointers for the future:

1.     Review how mental health is defined and how it is protected by discrimination laws.

The definition of disability that most people are familiar with is in the Equality Act 2010. It defines a disabled person as having “a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term (ie 12 months or more) adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day to day activities”. However, you have to read the small print to understand that it also covers people whose impairment “reduces” their ability to work normally and whose symptoms may fluctuate in their intensity.

This gets to the nub of the problem around defining mental health, because it is often very subjective and greatly influenced by an individual’s perception of how they feel and what they can and can’t do. Employers clearly need more help in identifying often hidden forms of disability and in understanding what suitable workplace adjustments might work.

2.     Tackle the organisational causes of mental distress, such as poorly managed change

Acas research found that certain organisational factors can, if unchecked, lead to the creation of ‘anxious organisations’ – that is, organisations that do not look after the mental health of their staff.

Foremost amongst the drivers of this cultural anxiety, are downsizing and the intensification of work, the poor management of change and a lack of line management capability to engage with staff on personal problems, particularly during performance management interventions.

Of course, employers may have limited influence over some of the causes of organisational change. But we do need to have a bigger debate about what constitutes good work – something Matthew Taylor has expressed an interest in as part of his review of the ‘gig economy’ – and how that impacts on mental wellbeing.     

3.     Understand the individual factors influencing mental health through more empathic line management

I recently analysed a number of calls to our helpline on the issue of stress and mental health. What was most apparent was that mental health problems happen in every workplace environment. This may be an obvious conclusion to come to, but what is less obvious is how we adapt interventions and employer responses to take account of what it is like to work with and manage mental health in settings as diverse as an abattoir, a building site, a clothes shop and a care home.

The Health and Safety Executive are currently reviewing their popular ‘Management Stress Standards’ in order to try and tailor them to different sectors. This is welcome, but it may also be time to review the standards more broadly to make them more reflective of the broader spectrum of mental health conditions beyond stress.  

4.     Share what interventions work best and do more research

The Work and Health Unit at the Department of Work and Pensions have been gathering evidence on what wellbeing interventions work best. It’s a mark of the success of wellbeing and mental health campaigners that there are so many tools and initiatives out there for employers to use. But it can seem like a bit of a crowded marketplace.

Organisations are often keen to sign up to various charters and pledges, and this is often a welcome sign of their commitment to wellbeing issues, but who knows what really works? One thing we do know for sure, is that it is usually better for a manager and an employee if the employee is able to disclose their condition. The Work Foundation did some interesting research on disclosure relating to schizophrenia.

5.     Be positive about contribution people with mental health conditions bring to the workplace

The Mental Health Foundation’s recent research aimed to turn the table on the usual debates about how much the ‘problem’ of mental health costs the economy, by looking at the positive contribution people with mental health conditions make to the workplace. Their report finds that not only are the “majority of those with common mental health problems” employed across all industrial sectors, but their contribution to the economy (£226 billion) is nine times more than the cost of mental health problems to economic output (£25 billion).

In the light of this, it may seem a little startling that so many people with mental health conditions are ashamed about their illness. The same report states that 41% of those asked, said that they did not talk to their manager due to a sense of ‘shame’. As well as battling societal stigma about mental illness, we also need to address this debilitating issue of self-stigma.  

6.     Ring fence time to have grown up conversations: time to talk should be embedded in organisational culture

We are all very familiar with Time for Change’s excellent campaign ‘Time to Talk’ which aims to normalise conversations about mental health. Indeed the campaign inspired me to write about a period I recently experienced due to mental distress. In the future, talking about how we feel must become embedded in workplace cultures, but for this to happen time needs to be ring-fenced for these conversations. Intensification of work and more pressure on line managers often means that performance meetings, let alone more pastoral care meetings, are the first things to get squeezed by time constraints.

I will hold my hand up and say that I am not always that keen on meetings. I think they are often more a reflection of habit and hierarchical structures than any real desire to listen and agree action points. But one-to-one meetings of the kind we are talking about don’t need to have an objective. As a starting point, they just need to happen more often. I know that some sectors, such as social services, are much better at this practice than others.       

7.      Celebrate ‘mental diversity’ in the same way enlightened workplaces celebrate ‘neurodiversity’ and ethnic and racial diversity. Be inclusive!!

This last point says it all really and takes me full circle back to the point made by Helen White-Knight. Clearly some people with a mental health condition do not want to celebrate how depressed or anxious they feel and need the right treatment. But everyone has something unique to bring to a workplace and we must be prepared to recognise and be thankful for that.


By Adrian Wakeling (@AdrianWakeling), Senior Policy Advisor, Acas


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