Why a 'prevention first' approach to managing mental health at work is key

Head of advice and practice, IOSH

Employees can be affected by a multitude of pressures, both at work and in their personal lives. According to the UK government-commissioned Stevenson-Farmer review in 2017, around 300,000 people with a long-term common mental health disorder lose their jobs each year.

It is insufficient merely to give line managers responsibility to act. They must be equipped with the right knowledge and skills to identify and help to address common mental disorders effectively before they reach crisis point for the individual.

IOSH believes better equipping line managers will result in organisations taking a preventive approach to building and maintaining positive, destigmatised workplace cultures. Early supportive action can make a vast difference in averting any issues or detecting them early. Line managers are vital in creating workplaces that foster a positive environment for people’s mental health and wellbeing.

Some organisations may be tempted to dismiss thoughts of helping an employee on the ground of it not being their liability. This is shortsighted. The employee’s productivity is still diminished, and absence may still result. Studies such as IOSH’s Return to Work after Common Mental Disorders with Tilburg University in the Netherlands show that good work is an effective rehabilitation tool for employee recovery (bit.ly/2gBkdLK).

There is strong evidence that creating a work culture that seeks to manage stressors, works to destigmatise ill health, and helps to deal with anxiety and depression will deliver the benefits of a more productive and loyal workforce. The right advice and training for managing mental health and wellbeing can deliver a significant return on investment, as outlined in IOSH’s business briefing, The Healthy Profit, which highlights the financial and moral benefits of creating a healthy workplace (bit.ly/2F448L8).

The right advice and training for managing mental health and wellbeing can deliver a significant return on investment


IOSH and Management Today recently conducted a survey of more than 400 employees from a range of UK businesses The goal was to gain a clearer understanding of what was being done in the workplace to support people with mental health problems.

Some 57% of respondents said their organisation offered no mental health and wellbeing training or support for managerial staff. Those that did have training and support in place reported that in most cases it was optional (79%) rather than mandatory (22%). Not unusually, the findings underline the key role that line management plays in responding to this risk issue.

The results indicate there is still much to be done to convince businesses of a “prevention first” approach to managing mental health and wellbeing. Workplace environments and company cultures need to be fashioned so that employees can divulge any issues they may have without fear of harming their career prospects or being stigmatised.

Employers are already required by law to provide training on physical health and safety, and IOSH believes it is time the same requirements applied to mental health.

The UK’s health and safety law demands the prevention of both physical and mental harm. To this end, the chair of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) board, Martin Temple, has announced that the HSE is updating its advice and enforcement capability for mental health. Now it is down to organisations to review their mental wellbeing management systems to ensure they are focused primarily on prevention and their line managers’ ability to implement them effectively.


Duncan Spencer is head of advice and practice, IOSH. 


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