Why is mental health so important in the workplace?

While the wellbeing of people should be reason enough, mental health also presents its impact in business in hard numbers. 

Let's dive into some quick statistics to highlight why supporting mental health in the workplace is so important.

  • 15% of working adults live with a mental health condition
  • 12 billion working days are lost to depression and anxiety per year
  • Depression and anxiety lose the global economy $1 trillion each

The pandemic has put mental health at work in the spotlight. As work and personal life became more fluid than ever, the impact of work related stress and the importance of improving employees' mental wellbeing became painfully clear.

During the pandemic another global health crisis developed — or rather, was finally recognised: the mental health crisis. The WHO officially identifies mental health problems as a health hazard, with big consequences.

woman stressed at work

Work is a major part of our lives and it can be hard to switch off. So, that means we'll have to make it more manageable.

Wherever the cause of someone's mental health issues lies, it’s every manager's (and colleague's!) responsibility to respond accordingly to a mental health problem a coworker has.

It shouldn't matter if you’d break your arm or are burnt out: you need time off either way. But how do you show your employer that what's going on inside your head is stopping you from being your best self at work? Most people don't know: only a mere 14% of people are comfortable discussing their mental health at work.

While there’s no vaccine for mental health conditions or simple solution to this issue, the road to doing better starts with understanding. 

How many people miss work because of mental health issues?

Mental health conditions such as work related stress, depression and anxiety account for 44 percent of all work related ill-health cases in the UK, and 57 percent of all working days lost are due to ill health. That adds up to 12.8 million missed working days.

Figures published in the government’s recent Thriving at Work report revealed that mental health related absenteeism costs 300,000 Brits their jobs a year, and accounts for £42bn in lost revenue.

Given that around 325,000 people in the UK have to leave employment due to a cancer diagnosis, this is a pretty shocking statistic.

It goes to show the clear disparity between the impact and the treatment of mental health. We know the steps needed to treat illnesses like cancer, or other life-changing diagnoses, but clarity around mental health procedures is sorely needed.

What happens before job loss: presenteeism and absenteeism

People really don't go to the dentist or have a mild flu as often as they might say: 51% of absenteeism can be attributed to mental health problems. But there's also another issue: presenteeism. This is showing up for work while you really shouldn't, and with mental health problems, it happens a lot: presenteeism is responsible for 81% of productivity loss. 

Having a job is what often contributes to better mental health, thanks to the increased feeling of security, financial freedom, and social contact with others. It shouldn't turn into the place where your mental health plummets.

Mental health risks in the workplace include:

  • Work overload
  • Toxic gossip or environment
  • Lack of support from management
  • Ineffective leadership


Why is mental health so hard to discuss at work?

There's a mental health awareness day, week, month even. Many companies post about it on social media, showing the outside world that they understand it. But it's much more nuanced than saying you are aware of the importance. Especially if nobody at work is talking about it.

The stigma around poor mental health

21 percent of people in the UK feel too embarrassed to take time off for mental health problems. 40 percent of workers feel it is easier to get time off for physical ailments.

The discussion about mental health at work is hard for both sides. There's still a stigma around mental health problems, and in the workplace, it can be hard to find the right balance: one should be able to talk about it to eradicate the taboo. On the other hand, you want to be discreet. After all, it's still a personal matter.

For employees, it can be awkward or feel too personal to open up about their mental health problems to someone they work for. Often, they don't know what to ask for or what they need. These problems are in many cases much harder to solve than other medical issues.

These employees don't want to be perceived as weird or weak, or be treated any differently. There's a fear that others will brush off their mental health problem as they outwardly look fine. And work related stress, isn't that just part of the job?

The role and responsibility of employers

For employers, there's the question of how deep they can dig into someone's personal problems and what questions to ask. Managers often don't feel equipped to talk about mental health. They don't want to offend anyone by misinterpreting mental health problems. And as a manager, it raises so many questions like: 

  • What to do about these issues? 
  • How long will it take to solve this? 
  • What are your responsibilities as an employer?

The role employers play entails getting everyone on board. It's important to note that mental wellbeing should not only be the concern of those working HR. It has an impact on everyone in the workplace, thus support should be created throughout the entire organisation, perhaps with the help of multiple employee wellbeing initiatives.

What can cause mental health problems?

Mental health conditions can be caused by a variety of factors, and often it is a combination of things. A big life event, genetics, underlying health issues: it's often hard to point to just one culprit. But, how someone feels at work can aggravate pre-existing mental health conditions.

What's the difference between mental illness and mental health?

Someone can show up with mental illness and function just fine, if they're being treated accordingly. Mental illness and mental wellbeing are different, yet connected. Poor mental health can lead to mental and even physical illnesses.

How work related stress affects mental health

Employers should seek to support employee mental health to prevent issues before they occur.  This means that you should make sure that the workplace is at the very least not a damaging factor, but rather a place of support.

Why? Because work related stress can do much more harm than you might think. The fact that so many people are stressed, doesn't make it right. It's still a health hazard. Here are some things to look out for as an employer:

  • Work related stress: having a challenging job is in most cases better than having a mind numbing one. Try to find the balance and make sure what you are asking from your employees is reasonable and doable to keep work related stress to manageable levels. And note: those levels are different for everyone.
  • Work-life balance: the wellbeing of people goes beyond what you do in the office. The hours someone works and whether or not they get contacted outside working hours heavily impacts their mental state.
  • Workplace bullying: unfortunately, this is still a relevant topic today. As an employer, this can be hard to spot and even harder to tackle. Start by building a good company culture from the ground up.
  • Workload: it's not just what type of work you do, but also how much you are expected to get done. Increased workload is one of the main triggers for mental health problems.
  • Lack of control: don't think that just an overload of responsibility can cause work related stress. It's also a lack of it. If people feel they're unable to make decisions about their own job, this can add to their stress levels.
  • Workplace dynamics: social situations can be stressful anywhere, but at work especially. If there are difficult relationships between employees and employers, this can greatly impact everyone's wellbeing, even if you're not directly involved in the conflict.

What does it mean if someone is burnt out?

You've probably heard the term burnout when talking about work related mental health conditions. It can sound very abstract, but burnout is very real, and it's becoming a big issue in the world of work.

People can actually handle stress pretty well: we can barely compare the stress of an office to what it was like to hunt for your own food — while being hunted.

Everyone has a limit, and when it comes to stress, that is related to our allostatic load. This is the sum of repeated and chronic stress people are exposed to. See it as the maximum amount of stress you can lift before you break.

Work related stress, personal problems: it all adds up to the same load. It doesn't matter if the stress is unrelated, it all goes into your body and brain. And when it's too much, you can experience problems, such as burnout.

When someone experiences burnout, they are drained and exhausted. Physically and mentally. Everything can feel like too much, and this feeling will also affect your mental health.

woman burned out at work

Is all stress bad?

No! Sometimes stress, even work related, stress can be good for us, but it highly depends on how stressful something is, and how long and frequently we're exposed to it. A challenging assignment at work every once in a while can therefore be good stress: also known as eustress or beneficial stress.

How to openly talk about mental health in the workplace

Mental health remains a touchy topic for many, let alone in a place where they feel like they should only keep it professional. Sharing their mental health problems with their boss or coworkers might feel unnatural — even though it would explain why they miss a deadline, need some time off, or are just not themselves. Employers should realise their employees are made of skills, knowledge and feeling.

A face-to-face meeting about their mental health problems with a manager they might not even know that well can be the last thing they want, so how do you make room for that conversation?

Make mental health a normal topic in your organisation

  • Make it unmistakably clear who people can turn to for support with mental health problems, and make it easy to do so. It could be as easy as pointing mental health resources out in your monthly internal newsletter. Don’t be afraid to repeat this either — sometimes people need a little encouragement. 
  • Remind employees about what benefits are available to them and that any mental health issue will be handled with the utmost care and discretion. 
  • Organise regular one-to-one’s and catch up with employees to simply check in with how they’re doing. This will also build trust. Don’t just start talking about mental health when it’s too late.
  • If you suspect that someone on your team is experiencing mental health problems, don’t wait it out. Take the lead and show that you care.

mental health matters in the workplace

Do you need to hire a professional?

As a manager, you don't suddenly need to get skilled as a therapist or hire one to talk about mental health in the workplace. What people often need in this stage is just another human being — someone who listens and helps them navigate these times. 

Managers who get appointed as the person to turn to for these cases, should, however, be somewhat trained and suitable for this. They should feel confident talking about topics like this, and be easily approachable

Employers don't need to become an expert on mental health conditions, let alone treatments. But you should make way for your employees to find someone who does have the knowledge and skills to help them.

How can managers create a supportive work environment?

In-house, obligatory therapy sessions, four-day work weeks, blocking email after office hours, or company retreats: employers all around the world are experimenting with all kinds of mental health programmes. They all sound great, but these solutions don’t do much if the foundation they are placed on is unstable. 

Mental health can only thrive in open, safe, and accepting cultures

Whatever strategies you’ll be implementing to promote mental health, they won't work unless there’s a healthy workplace environment and culture in place. If the resources are available, but people feel unsafe reaching out to use these, they’ll go to waste.

mannequins hugging

Improving mental health is not a cover-up for boosting productivity

Know why you are implementing whichever tools or solutions you’ll pick. You’re not organising meditation workshops or getting a therapist on board, so your employees can handle more workload or deal with more stress. You’ll have to pick solutions that make them feel better, full stop. 

So, when you decide to get serious about mental health, start with your workplace culture. Make mental health a part of the conversation at every stage, from the hiring process to exit interviews.

Learn how to support your remote teams' wellbeing

How to create a workplace culture that truly values mental health

Creating a workplace culture that really supports those who struggle with mental health conditions doesn't require big investments. There's a lot of low-hanging fruit that could be picked simply by starting a conversation.

Supporting mental health in the workplace with words

Someone needs to be the first to speak up and address the importance of mental health in the workplace. Leaders: lead by example.

Imagine this: your manager uses his voice and speaks up about how mental health affected him and his family. He shows it's okay to talk about it, that we all experience these things. He shows it's okay to be vulnerable.

Simply hearing someone else talk about it openly could already do a lot for someone who's been hesitant about coming forward about a mental health problem.

power of words on mental wellbeing

Promote your employee wellbeing resources

Chances are, there are systems in place to help those with a mental health problem. But often, those systems are not as well known. From the content on your website to internal newsletters: create a mental health first aid kit and make it easy for employees to find the resources they need.

Include the whole team

Sometimes people don't want or need to go to HR for a good talk — a dear colleague would do. That's why it's important to discuss these topics with everyone, in every layer of your organisation. Employers should create a supportive network on the work floor to promote understanding and ensure that everyone is looking out for each other.

inclusive workplace

The workplace is often the most stressful place a person finds themselves in, employees and managers need to keep an eye out for signs of deteriorating mental health in fellow colleagues.

Paul Farmer

How to manage employee absence caused by mental health issues

A broken bone takes six to eight weeks to heal. Food poisoning can keep you chained to your bathroom for a few days. With mental health issues, there’s no set timeline for recovery. The average time off for mental health-related issues is 21.2 days per case, but it can vary a lot between people and per mental health problem.

When employees need time off work for mental health

When it turns out that working fewer hours or having to take time off is the best approach for an employee, it's crucial to handle this with care. What you will need to cover:

  • Fielding questions from your staff about who will take on the extra workload
  • Creating a realistic timeline for the employee to return
  • Staying in touch with the employee in the right ways
  • Making sure the return goes smooth and expectations are managed

UK employment laws support mental health parity

Your employees' mental health problems should be approached in the same way as physical health problems when they come to you. So if their mental health issue requires sick leave you need to give it to them. That's the law.

Sometimes, mental health conditions are considered disabilities. According to the Equality Act 2010, a mental health condition can be a disability when it is:

  • Having a substantial adverse effect on an employee’s life.
  • Affecting an employee’s ability to perform daily activities.
  • Lasting for at least 12 months.

If sickness absence is not managed here or reasonable adjustments made, these actions could meet the threshold for a disability discrimination claim.

Be positive towards everyone

Throughout this whole process, it's vital for employers to stay positive and supportive. Not just towards the employee in question, but also towards the rest of the staff. You need to promote a workspace where having to take time off for mental health issues isn’t punished or ridiculed.

A sign saying 'self care isn't selfish' to motivate staff in the office

Maintain frequent contact

It’s also important to stay involved, even during the time of absence. To make sure that communication contributes to a speedy recovery and doesn't make things worse, sit down with your employee and ask her or him how often they’d like to be updated and contacted.

Would they prefer texts, email or calls? It can make all the difference to not feel completely separated from what’s happening at work, especially when returning comes closer. 

Prepare their return

When it’s time for the person in question to come back to work, allow them to ease into it. That could be by reassuring them they don't have to come back full-time straight away, or by distributing the workload in a way that leaves enough room for rest.

When they’re back, keep checking in regularly — as you should with all employees — to see if things are going well. Make sure the rest of the staff handles things with care and is supportive.

How to support employees with signs of mental illness

It can feel inappropriate to bring up issues like these without a worker specifically asking for help — but sometimes it's the necessary thing to do. Sometimes people need help via their employer. But sometimes they just need to hear that you’re aware, and that it's okay to miss that deadline, and you’re here to talk.

Don't offer unsolicited advice, start with a listening ear

While supporting employees that struggle with poor mental health, it's important to acknowledge that mental health issues can be as diverse as physical health problems. Some people suffer from stress or anxiety, others deal with depression, substance abuse, or insomnia.

While it’s not your place to diagnose or treat, it is important that you accept that all mental health issues are valid.

Employees chatting as part of supporting each other's wellbeing

Signs someone's struggling with mental health issues

Mental health issues are far harder to identify than physical problems, but they’re not always invisible. What should you pay attention to?

  • Someone stops keeping up with their appearance or has poor hygiene.
  • Someone’s tired when at work.
  • Someone takes more time off than usual (without a clear reason) or shows up late.
  • Someone is easily frustrated, gets angry, or responds in an irritated way.
  • Someone doesn’t eat (enough) at lunch.
  • Someone’s productivity plummets.
  • Someone stops participating in social activities.

There are also cases where it will be much harder to spot that someone is struggling. This it's why it's crucial to have frequent conversations with your staff just to check in.

signs someone is struggling with workplace wellbeing

What’s next? Here’s how to start a conversation

If you feel like it's necessary to approach a coworker that you suspect needs help, you can feel like you’re walking on eggshells. Always keep in mind that in most cases, starting the conversation is much more appreciated in the long run than just pretending you didn’t notice any of the signs.

When planning this conversation, make clear that you want to talk to an employee about something important — but also make clear that they are definitely not about to get fired. You want to avoid giving them more anxiety and stress. Book enough time in a place where you can talk in private.

Start the conversation by expressing concern about what you’ve been noticing, and asking if they want to talk about it. In the case that they don't, do remind them that support is available when they change their minds. If they do open up, it’s time to really listen.

In conversations about mental health problems, it's important to take people seriously and don’t make assumptions. Ensure confidentiality and ask them what they feel would help them get back on the right track. Then you can create a plan of action together.

What type of help can you offer?

It depends on the situation your employee finds himself in. Do they need counselling? More flexible working hours, so there’s less pressure on their family life? Allow people to take the time and opportunity to get the help they want. Then it will come down to benefit plans and health insurance to see how much you as an employer can do.

If they choose to go with an external solution, such as therapy, your job isn't done yet. Keep checking in with your co-worker in a frequency that's comfortable for them and reassure them that they can always come forward if they need extra time or tools to deal with their problems.

Should you simply lower someone's workload?

In a lot of cases, managers feel like taking responsibilities away from people is a good thing for a while. But some employees might feel like this means their work becomes less meaningful, or they aren't trusted with their tasks. So, whichever approach you try, always discuss it with the employee in question.

How to implement a mental health and wellbeing strategy at work

A mental health wellbeing plan will look different for every workplace. Small businesses might not be able to offer as many tools or solutions, but can compensate with a great open culture in which mental health is no longer a taboo topic.

Supporting remote workers with mental health issues

Working remotely can be just as challenging. Employers should take extra care and check in with people working alone and isolated from their coworkers in the office. Having to deal with the children and the overlap between personal and professional life can be confusing, and it can be hard to 'turn work off' when you ''live'' at your office.

stressed remote worker

How can Perkbox help with mental health?

It's important your employees can talk to someone in confidence about any work-related or personal issues, as not doing so could harm their mental health and result in absenteeism.

For these reasons, we included an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) in our engagement platform. Our partner, Health Assured, is one of the most trusted EAP providers in the UK and Ireland and offers 24/7 access to free, impartial, and confidential advice.

In general, their services take care of your employees' emotional and mental wellbeing through counselling and other support services.

burned out remote worker in need of mental health support

What do your employees get access to?

Health Assured's EAP is flexible, which means your employees can find a service that best matches their needs.

For example, some people may prefer talking to a counsellor over the phone, whereas others would like to have a conversation over web-chat. Employees with visual, hearing, or speech impairments can also use Next Generation Text (NGT) if they wish.

Of course, for some issues, face-to-face sessions with a counsellor would be more appropriate, and anyone can request this option if they want it.

Services at a glance

Employees can get access to: 

  • 24/7 support helpline 365 days a year
  • Critical incident and trauma support
  • Medical, legal, and financial information 
  • Access to online health resources — a comprehensive library with content on wellbeing 
  • Access to the health and e-Hub app — get on-demand resources in times of need
  • Monthly webinars and newsletters with helpful ideas, advice, and guidance

Emotional support includes: 

  • Stress management
  • Conflict resolution
  • Communicating change
  • Work/life balance
  • Absence management
  • Team building 
  • Time management
  • Post-trauma support
  • Management information
  • Return to work support
  • Bullying and harassment

What makes Health Assured unique?

What makes Health Assured unique, in comparison with other EAP providers, is its accreditation with the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy at an organisational level.

Additionally, their highly qualified therapists and counsellors can administer therapy for many mental health conditions, including, stress, depression, and anxiety.

It's important to note, that your employees can use EAP counselling for personal issues outside of the workplace. The conversations, they may have with a therapist or counsellor could include family problems, such as parenting, divorce, and separation.

Other specialists, who are not therapists can also provide guidance on specific legal matters, or offer financial advice if these topics are a source of stress for someone.

What else does Perkbox offer?

When you choose Perkbox, you also get access to our extensive wellbeing library, which includes a range of content to help your teams live happier and healthier lives. The content is available on-demand from a smartphone, tablet, and laptop and includes:

  • Workout videos: From cardio to yoga, all of our videos will encourage your teams to get moving and stay active.
  • Guided meditations: Relaxing after a busy day is difficult, but guided meditations can help clear your employees' minds.
  • Sleep stories: Help your teams switch off and get a good night's sleep with soothing sleep stories.


therapy session as part mental wellbeing in the workplace

To use your EAP, search employee support on the Perkbox homepage or app. Like any other service on the platform, select get this perk and you’ll instantly gain access.


Frequently asked questions about mental health in the workplace

What is the Acas framework?

The Acas framework was created to help organisations in the UK deal with mental health problems. It promotes positive mental health at work and outlines how employers, managers and employees should share responsibility for positive mental wellbeing in the workplace.

How long should I give someone off for mental problems?

How does stress affect mental health?

How can we improve employee wellbeing?

What's the role of HR in mental health care?

What are common mental health issues?

What's the impact of mental health in the workplace (UK)?

Optimise your employee wellbeing strategy and prevent burnout

We've put together this guide to help you create the best possible employee wellbeing strategy.

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