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How to stop mental health being a taboo at work

Mental health isn’t a laughing matter

If you haven’t seen Ted Lasso, the Apple TV comedy series about an American coach coming to take charge of an English football team, it’s an absolute winner. The abundantly cheerful Coach Lasso hides his tendency towards panic attacks from colleagues for fear of ridicule. When the truth emerges, many of those he works with are sympathetic, but some observers are less so. “If my father had a panic attack at Normandy, we’d all be speaking German,” is one rather unsympathetic response.

The sad reality is, while we purport to live in a world where mental health is now discussed openly and honestly (and certainly progress is being made in this direction) having a mental health condition is still a relatively taboo subject. And this is true nowhere more than in the workplace.

Suffering in silence

According to a survey conducted by mental health charity Mind, 30% of staff disagreed with the statement 'I would feel able to talk openly with my line manager if I was feeling stressed'. Even more starkly, according to a US survey conducted by JobSage, only 1 in 5 workers say they’re okay bringing up their mental health concerns with human resources.

In research conducted by the Priory Group, “71% of the people we spoke to would worry about telling their employer if they had a mental health condition, for fear of getting a negative response. For many, the desire to keep their condition hidden has led to them ringing work with a made-up illness rather than admit they were experiencing a mental health issue.”

The bottom line

The issue of stigma around mental health is having a direct, and deleterious, effect on businesses in the UK. Mind’s survey revealed that more than one in five workers (21%) agreed that they had called in sick to avoid work when asked how workplace stress had affected them. And 14% stated that they had resigned, but with 42% considering resigning as a result of stress and anxiety.

According to the Mental Health Foundation (MHF), a staggering 70 million work days are lost each year due to mental health problems in the UK, costing employers approximately £2.4 billion per year. All the signs indicate that treating mental health as a ’niche’ problem is a mistake. MHF’s research shows most people have some experience of a mental health problem, and the latest large-scale survey in England suggested that one in six people experience the symptoms of a mental health problem in any given week. The value added to the economy by people who are at work and have or have had mental health problems is as high as £225 billion per year, which represents 12.1% of the UK's total GDP.

The importance of being honest

According to MHF, a critical step in addressing mental health in the workplace is to have an open and accepting work culture. “An essential building block for workplace mental health is the ability to have open, authentic conversations about mental health in the workplace, both individually and on a strategic level… A toxic work environment can be corrosive to our mental health.

When we create workplace cultures where people can be themselves, it is easier for people to speak about mental health concerns without fear, and easier for them to reach out for help when they need it. Even so, the decision to disclose distress at work is not one people take lightly.

Employers’ to do list

According to workplace wellness providers Mental Health in the Workplace, there are a number of steps employers can take to assist their workers in the management of their mental health. These include:

  • Visibly commit to a mental health policy or strategy that aims to reduce stigma and promote good mental health in the workplace.

  • Build and develop the mental health awareness of workers by making information, tools and support accessible.

  • Encourage open conversations about mental health and support services provided by the organisation on a regular basis. Talk openly about the services available and encourage people to use them when they are needed.

Meanwhile, MHF advocates allowing staff the time to look after themselves. “Regular exercise can boost your self-esteem and can help you concentrate, sleep, and look and feel better. If you work in an office, it can make a huge difference to get out for a walk or do a class at lunchtime, or to build in exercise before or after work to ease you into the day or create a space between work time and personal time.”


One way of achieving all of these aims is to engage a wellbeing engagement platform like BuddyBoost. BuddyBoost has a growing range of programmes where participants join a challenge to commit to doing something that’s good for them for at least 26 days in a month. Our products include Active, Timeout, Good Food, Kindness and Green – with more challenges on the way. The common theme across all our interventions are buddies and community, which we use to generate mass engagement and to increase camaraderie amongst work colleagues.

Time for action

By investing in a wellbeing programme, an employer is demonstrating a willingness to engage in the subject of mental health. But when that wellbeing programme is backed up by quantifiable results, and shown to improve employees’ physical and mental wellbeing, as well as promoting discussion, openness and a sense of togetherness, it becomes a tool that can be of enormous benefit to an organisation and the individuals who work in it. At BuddyBoost, we call it a ‘culture of wellbeing’.

Mental health conditions are invisible - and are still the subject of considerable workplace stigma. With a workforce facing all sorts of external pressures, it’s a problem that’s likely to grow rather than shrink. But with the right approach, employers can tackle the issue and take the steps to ensure their workforce is healthy, happy and profitable. Everybody wins. We’ve talked the talk for long enough. Now it’s time to strap the boots on.


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