More than two-thirds (69%) of senior business managers do not believe stress, anxiety or depression is a serious enough reason for employees to take time off work, according to research by Axa PPP Healthcare.

Its survey of 1,000 employees and 1,000 senior business managers, such as chief executives and managing directors, found that one in four employee respondents had experienced a mental health problem at some point in the year.

The research also found that 46% of employee respondents thought their employer did not take mental health issues seriously.

But more than half (54%) of employer respondents thought that attitudes towards mental ill health in the workplace have changed for the better in the past 15 years. Just under a third (30%) said they had not seen any change.

However, one in five business managers would worry about an employee’s capability to do their job if they suffered from a mental health issue.

And one in six managers would worry about the consequences it may have on themselves, such as it reflecting poorly on their management style or having to pick up additional work.

When employee respondents were asked if they would be honest with their line manager when calling in sick if they were suffering from stress, anxiety or depression, only 39% said they would tell the truth.

Among those that would avoid telling the truth, 15% were afraid they would not be believed, 23% were afraid of being judged and 23% preferred to keep their health issues private. Some 7% feared their line manager’s reaction to being told the truth.

Dr Mark Winwood, director of clinical psychology at Axa PPP Healthcare, said: “Stress and mental health issues affect one in four people on average in any given year and one in six at any given time.

“With this rate of occurrence, we need to work harder to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental ill health. Employers are well placed to lead the way to changing this harmful prejudice by giving their employees the necessary tools and support to enable them to discuss mental health in an open and unbiased way.

“Lack of understanding breeds fear so improving employees’ awareness and understanding of mental illness is one of the most important things an organisation’s senior management team can do and a critical first step is to challenge the stigma surrounding mental ill health in the workplace.

“I have seen that senior managers who have been open and felt able to share their own experiences of mental health challenges and worries have often succeeded in developing an environment that is more accepting.”

Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at mental health charity Mind, added: “This survey data is hugely worrying but unfortunately not surprising, [because] it echoes our own research.

“We know that there is still a taboo around talking about issues like stress, anxiety and depression at work. Yet we all have mental health, just as we all have physical health, and people can experience a mental health problem no matter what role they are doing.

“Employees experiencing unmanageable stress or a mental health problem can still carry out their role to a high standard, but may need extra support.

“It’s vital that organisations create an environment which promotes good mental health. Employees that work within a culture where poor mental health is not considered a valid reason for time off will be reluctant to open up about their own problems.

“If staff don’t speak up, employers are not able to implement support measures to help them stay well, leading to bigger problems further down the line.”

By Robert Crawford, as published in Employee Benefits on 1st April 2015

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