Workplace Mental Health - Employer Fears and What to do About Them
Shaw Trust (2018) reported fewer employers are likely to employ people with mental health issues than before, with more than half of employers seeing employees with mental health issues as a ‘significant risk’ to their business.
But exactly what fears do employers hold and what can be done to allay them?
Employers are likely to hold several fears about employing people with mental health issues.
Employees with mental health issues might upset customers, potentially leading to a loss of revenue. The employer’s reputation may also be damaged as customers might think an organisation with employees with poor mental health might be in some way less reliable or less effective.
Employees with mental health issues may be unpredictable and disrupt team working, upsetting workplace harmony and causing discord, leading to relationship problems and reducing employee satisfaction.
Employees with mental health issues may be less productive, producing less when at work and having more time off from work because of higher levels of sickness. Employees with mental health issues may take up more management time. Management will have to spend time dealing with the negative impacts caused by people with poor mental health. People with poor mental health are likely to increase overhead costs because of the support they need, including extra management time. With fears like these, it’s no wonder that as mental health awareness increases, a deterioration in employer attitudes towards people with mental health issues also occurs, as Shaw Trust found. The deterioration in employer attitudes tells us the messaging behind attempts to improve mental health awareness may be wrong or ineffective. It may suggest existing messaging is heightening employer fears, not reducing them.
Until mental health market leaders, speakers, advocates and others adequately address these employer fears, we cannot expect the nation’s mental health journey to be short and smooth.
Raising awareness and speaking out may help. But only if done in the right way. Many lived-experience speakers talk of their mental health problems and how they overcame them. Employers may see the ‘problem’ part as the risk element, with the ‘recovery‘ part as the cost element. So where is the ‘win’ for the employer in this equation? The ‘problem’ part sees normal levels of employee performance reduced (eg. lower productivity) and the ‘recovery’ part (only) sees employee performance get back up to normal levels. Even then, a full recovery is not certain and time scales may be prolonged. The employer must be willing to sustain lower-than-usual employee productivity, perhaps on a long-term basis, increasing the cost of output and eroding margins. To an employer, this may sound like a lose/lose scenario. If people with poor mental health were avoided in the first place, the risks and costs associated with them would be avoided. ‘Avoidance’ must sound like a tempting option for some employers.
Mental health market leaders, influencers and advocates must establish in the minds of employers the case for supporting mental health in such a way that the employer's fears are allayed. Employers must be persuaded on a number of arguments.
They must be persuaded of the legal, moral, technical, financial and other arguments which demonstrate why employers should invest in people with poor mental health. Some of these arguments have already been established, so it can only be assumed the communication of each argument has been relatively ineffective.
Employers should be made aware of the almost certain fact that they already have many employees with poor mental health in their organisation. If the employers suggests not, this is probably an indication of a ‘denialist’ attitude. If employers already have employees with mental health issues, the financial case might appeal. However, if the employer is in denial about its employees having mental health issues, the financial case will have no appeal as the employer will believe it doesn't apply to them. Step one must be to establish in the minds of employers that many of their employees already have poor mental health; the employer is just unaware of it.
Employers should also be made aware that many people with mental health issues perform at more than adequate levels when at work and don’t usually require much extra support.
Finally, mental health market leaders must offer a strategic, structured and systematic approach to workplace mental health. Too much emphasis is currently placed on initiatives that don’t really help employers understand how to manage mental health, like speaking out. Far more emphasis must be placed on how to write a mental health policy, how to undertake mental health risk assessments and how to consult the workforce on mental health. Here, it seems many mental health market leaders are sitting back, waiting for ISO 45003, as opposed to getting on with the job.
Only with a change in scale and emphasis in the messaging from workplace mental health market leaders and influencers will we see a change in employer attitudes. Until then, mental health market leaders and influencers will continue to lack significant impact, employer attitudes will remain largely negative and employees will continue to suffer from poor mental health.