Talking about workplace mental health: How do employers in the Midlands understand and experience mental health issues?

ERC Insight Paper

Associated Themes
  • COVID-19
  • Mental Health

How do employers talk about mental health issues in their workplaces? This insight paper is based on analysis of survey and narrative data collected from Midlands firms in early 2020 (prior to the first COVID-19 lockdown) as part of a research project funded by the Midlands Engine for the Midlands Mental Health Productivity Pilot Programme. It examines two questions:

  • What do employers understand by ‘good mental health and wellbeing in the workplace’?
  • How do employers describe the impacts of mental health sickness absence on their firms?

The survey data shows differences by business sector and firm size in managers’ expressions of what good mental health in the workplace looks like. There is also divergence in managers’ reporting of the impacts of mental health sickness absence versus general health sickness absence. This divergence is present in all sectors and sizes of business. The reported impacts of mental health sickness absence vary across sectors. Drawing on narrative data from depth interviews, the paper identifies three themes in managers’ accounts of workplace mental health issues which reveal underlying attitudes. Firstly, mental health problems are sometimes viewed less sympathetically than issues related to physical health. Secondly, mental health issues are sometimes presented as more difficult to manage than general health issues. Thirdly, participants acknowledge that stigma around mental health issues persists, although they do feel that things are slowly starting to change. The paper concludes that while firm characteristics such as sector and size appear to be linked to different experiences of mental health issues, underlying attitudes may also influence the ways in which managers experience and deal with these issues. For policy and firm-level interventions to address mental health issues in the workplace effectively, both firm-level characteristics and underlying attitudes should be considered.

The paper also reflects on the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, using follow-up interviews conducted in July and August 2020 after England’s first national lockdown. It notes changes in the broader business landscape which may have implications for the ways in which policymakers and employers develop and engage with workplace mental health initiatives in the future.