Mental health

Mental ill-health – now affecting more employees than ever


28 October 2016

Mental health problems are common in the workplace and this contributes significant cost to business and the UK economy. Reducing stigma by being open to having discussions about mental health issues in the work environment can encourage employees to seek help for any difficulties they are experiencing. The earlier mental health concerns are addressed, it’s much more likely long term problems can be avoided. Supporting business leaders and managers to be more open to discussing mental wellbeing is a major step forward in tackling stigma, discrimination and fear.

Mental health is greatest threat say medium and large businesses 

Mental ill-health is now the biggest threat to the health of the UK workforce – outweighing back injury, obesity and high blood pressure put together. That’s the verdict of managers of medium and large businesses in a survey of more than 1,000 firms carried out for us by Atomik.

The findings reflect a picture we’ve seen emerging over many years of working with businesses to protect the health and wellbeing of their people. We’ve seen how mental ill-health can affect businesses large and small, which is why we’ve been helping employers counter this growing threat to the UK economy. 


Mental ill-health - What’s the financial fallout for the UK?

The cost of mental ill-health to UK business is estimated at £37bn per year – that’s according to an OECD study from 2014.The main costs stem from lost productivity and reduced employment. 

With mental health concerns on the rise, we were reassured to find that nearly 80 per cent of the managers we surveyed felt they had some responsibility for their employees’ health. This is a significant increase compared with the last time we asked this question. 

It’s extremely encouraging to see a greater health focus from employers. Now it’s more important than ever that employers turn this goodwill into action to support their employees’ health, wellbeing and productivity. 


Stigma – compounding mental health issues in the workplace

The stigma that remains stubbornly attached to mental health leads to a particularly nasty vicious circle:

  • A fear of being stigmatised or discriminated against may discourage or delay employees in finding the help they need…
  • The longer the problem is left untreated, the more likely it is to worsen, causing the employee to feel more ashamed, frustrated and hopeless…
  • Which makes them even more fearful about seeking help…
  • Compounding the mental health issue further…

Research clearly shows that the earlier an employee seeks help for a mental health problem, the earlier their problem is treated and they can return to work. Yet (according to AXA Health’s own research, only 38% of people would tell their manager the truth about the reason for their absence if it was due to depression, compared with 84% for a cold or flu. 

When people know they can access help quickly, easily, and confidentially, they can take the first steps towards recovery. And in turn, that can encourage colleagues to seek help earlier. So if businesses work to normalise mental health issues, this can help to cut the time taken off work and lessen the financial fallout. And in the longer term, it will also help to make mental health discrimination a thing of the past.


Mental ill-health - How mental ill-health hits employees’ pockets

There’s another, very tangible dimension to the problem of mental health stigma that often goes unnoticed: the financial burden it can impose on employees. 

Recent research suggests that employees who experience mental ill-health earn up to 42 per cent less than their colleagues – with male employees hit hardest. The study found that for every pound earned by a male without any mental health issues, a colleague who had phobias or panic attacks earned just 58 pence. 

The Equality and Human Rights Commission, who commissioned the research, was scathing about the ‘hidden disgrace of British society’s pay gap’, calling on business and government to work together to end discrimination and stigma. We’ve spent many years supporting businesses to do just that and we echo their call. 

Mental ill-health - What more can your business do?

Don’t wait for change to happen – be part of the change yourself. Here are a few best practice pointers on supporting colleagues with mental health problems and breaking down mental health stigma. 

  • Educate employees about how to maintain good mental health – for example by getting enough sleep and taking exercise.
  • Tell them about the support that’s available – through new starter sessions, posters, intranet and presentations.
  • Train your line managers to recognise and deal with mental health concerns.
  • Publicise and explain your Employee Assistance Programme if you have one, including how to access it, that it’s confidential, and that it won’t affect their employee records.

These ideas were developed following our own roundtable discussion with senior business leaders on this topic last year. 


Dr Mark Winwood


Mark holds Associate Fellowship and Chartership with the British Psychological Society, he is registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and is a chartered Scientist.

Mark joined the medical services of AXA Health in June 2008 and was previously Clinical Director for AXA Health Employee Support for over 10 years.

Prior to joining AXA Mark worked as a Senior Psychologist in the NHS and has many years of clinical experience and research expertise. He is an active member of the EAPA, BPS and BACP - Workplace. He maintains a private practice as a Psychologist in London.