Louise’s lowdown: Breaking down taboos in all aspects of workplace health

Tackling taboos around mental health in the workplace is a frequently discussed topic on Employee Benefits. If employees feel unable to discuss mental health or managers feel uncomfortable broaching the topic in an empathetic and helpful manner, then this can hamper efforts to ensure staff access appropriate support.

A number of organisations have developed initiatives to open up the conversation around mental health and offer benefits to support staff experiencing mental ill-health. These might range from mental health champions, employee networks, and line manager training to awareness events, employee assistance programmes (EAPs), specialist medical support and referral pathways, among others.

In June 2017, for example, Virgin Trains signed the Time to Change pledge, committing to invest more than £700,000 a year into improving the health and wellbeing of its employees. The organisation has appointed two members of its board as mental health champions to ensure senior leadership-level buy-in, and it will also provide mental health first aid training to managers, with a view to rolling this training out to all employees in the future.

However, there is still work to be done. Research by Legal and General, published in February 2017, demonstrates a disconnect between employer and employee perceptions around mental health; 78% of employer respondents believe that staff feel comfortable discussing mental health problems with their employer, but just 4% of employee respondents with depression and 5% of respondents who experience anxiety feel they can speak to their manager about it.

But it is not just mental health conditions that can appear to be a taboo topic in the workplace. In its June 2017 report, More than “women’s issues”: women’s reproductive and gynaecological health and work, the Work Foundation, part of Lancaster University, highlighted the barriers women with chronic gynaecological conditions can face and the impact this can have on their health, productivity, career, and earning potential. Not only can these conditions cause physical and emotional distress, but staff may also be wary of a lack of awareness about symptoms and the support they require, including during treatment.

Indeed, the Fertility Network UK’s Survey on the impact of fertility problems, published in October 2016 in association with Middlesex University London, found that 50% of respondents were worried that undergoing fertility treatment would affect their career prospects. Furthermore, while 72% of respondents disclosed information to their employer, just two-fifths (41%) reported receiving a great deal of support, and 49% received some support. More than half (59%) of respondents agree that their employer would benefit from education or support to help them better understand the needs of employees having fertility treatment.

The authors of the Work Foundation report have called for greater recognition of conditions such as endometriosis, infertility, health problems experienced during pregnancy, and the menopause in the workplace, as well as access to confidential support pathways for staff. Providing an environment where employees feel able to seek support free from worry about how they will be perceived by their employer and colleagues, is surely the first of many steps to ensuring parity for all health and wellbeing issues in the workplace.