Bupa chief: bosses are ignoring staff with mental illness

04 November 2014 -


Career-stunting taboos persist over mental illness in the workplace, according to health organisation’s chief medical officer

Jermaine Haughton

Prejudice towards employees with mental health issues is rife because managers are failing to provide open and safe environments for workers to speak about their problems, a leading medical expert has warned. Following new research by Bupa – which shows that almost half of UK business leaders admit to walking on eggshells around troubled staff, while more than a fifth ignore them altogether – the firm’s chief medical officer says that workers are being victimised for their problems rather than judged on their abilities.

In a guest blog for the Huffington Post, Dr Paul Zollinger-Read wrote: “The main thing I take from all of this is that employees are being reduced to being defined by their condition rather than their skills, experience and expertise. These don't disappear because of a mental health problem – much like they wouldn’t if you broke your leg. With support, treatment and the right culture, those who experience mental health problems can and do recover and excel.”

However, he added, “those with mental health issues are often labelled erratic, unpredictable and weak. Sadly, because of fear, and a lack of understanding and compassion, over a third of leaders have seen employees be the victim of bullying because of their condition.”

Compiled in new report Breaking the silence, Bupa’s research surveyed 50 business leaders and 500 workers. Findings indicated that a third of leaders were concerned that mentally ill workers would fail to return to full productivity at work. An overwhelming majority (88%) claimed that they were trying to create welcoming environments for the open discussion of mental health but, despite that, 70% of employees still do not feel confident speaking about their issues in public.

Zollinger-Read wrote that one of the major sticking points is a blatant disparity between what leaders believe they are doing to tackle mental health issues and what workers are actually experiencing. He argued: “Seven out of 10 employees don't feel they can speak openly about mental health. Three-quarters of leaders believe they are offering the right help to their managers to support mental health in the workplace. However, half of employees say they've never been asked about depression, stress and anxiety. We can't skirt around these conditions, which, if untreated, can escalate to more serious health issues.”

In Zollinger-Read’s view, a lack of quality attention paid to employees with mental health issues is also stunting the careers of capable staff members. He added: “We come back to that word again: progress. The impact this is having on employees is huge. Just over half of employees who have had mental health issues believe they are less likely to get promoted, even though they feel they are still top performers. One in five employees who has experienced a mental health condition has felt under pressure to resign. You can see why the culture of silence around mental health is still so intact. It's a regressive situation.”

The release of Bupa’s Breaking the Silence followed that of another report from mental health charity Mind, which uncovered a disparity between government spending on the prevention of mental illness compared to the spend on safeguarding physical health. For example, Mind noted, even though an estimated one in six Britons experiences mental health problems during their lifetimes, just £40 million is spent on tackling the issue. That’s against £108m spent on anti-obesity campaigns, and £160m on smoking cessation.

Moreover, the scale of the problem has been highlighted in recent research from the World Health Organisation (WHO), which says that clinical depression will be the second most common health condition in the world by 2020. Mind’s head of workplace wellbeing Emma Mamo said: “This latest research from Bupa echoes our own findings: that mental health is still a taboo in the workplace. It’s good that organisations are increasingly acknowledging the importance of prioritising the wellbeing of their staff – with those who make mental health a priority seeing the benefits in terms of increased staff productivity and morale, and decreased sickness absence.

“But clearly, senior business leaders still hold some outdated and damaging views about the impact a mental health problem can have on somebody’s ability to carry out their role.”

For some hints on how to achieve workplace wellbeing through positive thinking, sign up to this forthcoming CMI seminar Personal Resilience and Assertiveness.

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