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Tom Neil: Talking about mental health: making it the new normal

Thursday 19 October 2017

Tom Neil, Senior Acas writer discusses mental health.

Tom Neil Tom Neil

Tom Neil is a Senior writer at Acas.




There continues to be a lack of understanding about mental health and misconceptions persist. It is still often perceived to be a sign of weakness, which it is not. One in four of us will suffer experience mental ill health at some point in our lives, highlighting just how common the issue is. Yet despite how common it is, for a long time it seemed as if the accepted approach to mental ill health was to simply avoid talking about it.

Fortunately, recent years has seen mental health beginning to get the focus that it requires. While I have been involved in our work on mental health, it has been great to note that many employers are taking the mental health of their staff seriously and trying to promote positive mental health in their workplace.

Yet still more work needs to be done. It is currently estimated that mental ill health costs employers in the UK £30 billion every year. Creating workplaces that encourage and support positive mental health has huge benefits to employers across the UK - providing happier, healthier workforces that are more engaged and productive.

I had a really interesting conversation with an Acas trainer during my research, who explained that the managers attending her training sessions often know that they should talk to staff about mental health but don't feel confident about what they should do or how they should do it. Her view was to emphasise how they already deal with physical ill health on a regular basis and that ultimately mental ill health should be treated fairly similarly. If an employee broke their arm, a manager should look at what support or adjustments could be made to help that employee continue doing their job while their arm recovered. Approaching mental ill health should really be the same. Focussing on what can be done to help the employee return and/or continue to work while their mental health recovers.

Normalising the topic in this way I think can be really useful. The Acas research on the Management of Mental Health at Work identified the need to tackle the continued stigma associated with mental ill health that led to staff feeling unable to seek help when they need it. Removing this stigma requires having open conversations in the workplace about mental health, educating staff on the topic and making it clear that mental ill health will be treated in the workplace the same as any other illness/injury.

To help employers attempt to achieve this, Acas has updated it's guidance on the topic. In line with our research, our new guide pdf icon Promoting positive mental health in the workplace [554kb] provides a step by step approach for promoting positive mental health. To help managers we are also providing a new webpage about Managing staff experiencing mental ill health. The page includes information on spotting the signs of mental ill health, tips on how to approach discussing the matter with the team member and ideas on what support may help. 

It is definitely good news that we are becoming more willing to talk about mental health. However the conversations do need to continue to normalise the subject and make it easier for staff experiencing mental ill health to feel that they can talk honestly about it and be confident that they will get the support they need.

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