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Managing mental health at work

Diane Lightfoot, CEO Business Disability Forum

Mental health is in the news more than ever;  whether it’s the royals launching the “Heads Together” campaign, the positioning of mental health in the major party manifestos in the run up to this year’s general election, or that mental health related sickness absence is overtaking muscular-skeletal conditions in non-manual employment, it’s clear that there is greater awareness of mental health than perhaps ever before.

And if this higher profile helps to reduce stigma and give people who are experiencing mental ill health the confidence to ask for the help they need, that can only be a good thing.

But asking for help is only part of the story; the support needs to be out there.

Most of us spend much of our life – or at least our waking life – at work. So employers have a huge role to play in supporting their employees to manage their mental health and to support them through periods of mental ill health. Research carried out by the Mental Health Foundation in 2016 found one in six (17%) of people over the age of 16 had a common mental health problem in the week prior to being interviewed. Extrapolated to the workforce, that is a huge amount of people experiencing mental health ill health at any one time. A 2013 global study found that the predominant mental health issue worldwide is depression, followed by anxiety, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

So, in Mental Health Awareness Week, it is timely to look at what employers can do to support the mental health of their workforce.

At Business Disability Forum, we advocate a holistic, three pronged approach to managing mental health at work:

  • Proactive
  • Responsive
  • Culture change

Proactive – this is the preventative aspect of supporting employees to manage their health and wellbeing. This includes not only physical health – though of course that is important – but also other wellbeing factors including financial.

Responsive – to anyone who has become unwell. Just over 50% of mental health related sickness is due to workplace stress – which also means that half isn’t. So, given that it is therefore impossible for employers’ interventions to prevent all episodes of mental ill health, it is vital that if someone does become unwell, support is available.

Workplace adjustments around mental health are often “softer”, and thus do not carry a direct cost, for example, offering flexible working times/patterns to avoid travelling in rush hour, providing appropriate lighting or sitting in a quieter part of an office. It’s important to remember too that Access to Work assessments for mental health are free and that Access To Work will also cover the whole cost of travel to (or within) work for people who cannot use public transport as a result of their disability, including mental health conditions.

Culture change – alongside the above, it’s vital that the organisation’s overall culture supports positivity and stigma busting, both in terms of how mental health is talked about and how this sits with other organisational messaging.

Organisations need to do a balance of all three of these ‘pillars’ – doing one in isolation can be counter-productive and positive messaging needs to be backed up by practical action.

We all have mental health – and we can all experience mental ill-health. So it’s really important that we work together to create organisational cultures where it’s okay to ask for support – and to provide that support when it’s needed.

Diane Lightfoot

CEO, Business Disability Forum

Business Disability Forum is a not for profit membership organisation which provides a wealth of advice to help businesses work effectively with disabled employees and customers and offers a range of resources to support employers to manage mental health at work. To find out more, visit www.businessdisabilityforum.org.uk or email

Diane took up the post of Chief Executive Officer at Business Disability Forum after moving from her role as Director of Policy and Communications for United Response, a leading national charity that works with disabled people.

During her 13 years at United Response, Diane greatly expanded the activities of her team beyond fundraising and communications to include campaigning, public affairs and lobbying, with a particular focus on promoting employment for disabled people.

Diane regularly attends events at the Department of Work and Pensions to help shape disability employment policy and is also co-chair of Learning Disability Voices, a coalition of not-for-profit and private providers, where her role involves lobbying government for the proper funding of social care.

Previously Diane has held responsibility for marketing and membership for the National Council of Voluntary Organisations and at the Pre-School Learning Alliance.