Younger workers ‘don’t want to discuss mental health at work’

Study suggests fear of harming career prospects prevents frank conversations; mentoring, EAPs and ‘mental health first aid’ can help

Employees under the age of 24 are the most reluctant of any age group to discuss mental health in the workplace, according to a study that demonstrates a widespread fear that talking about such issues will negatively impact on careers.

The survey of more than 1,300 workers, from Willis PMI Group, found that only 26 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds have ever spoken to their manager about their mental health, compared to 38 per cent of 45 to 64-year-olds.

In all, a third of respondents said they fear that disclosing a mental health issue would have a negative impact on their career prospects, and 30 per cent feel they would not receive adequate support. A similar proportion (28 per cent) believe their manager would think less of them if they knew they had a mental health condition.

Katharine Moxham, spokesperson for insurance lobby organisation Group Risk Development, believes younger employees may not feel comfortable discussing mental health issues because they fear colleagues could view them as weak. She said: “People are so reluctant to talk about mental health issues in the workplace, and this is amplified for younger workers because they have less life and work experience than their older colleagues. They also might be afraid of seeming weak in front of their co-workers.

“It’s so important to have positive role models to show younger workers that it is possible to discuss mental health issues, and to work while suffering from one.”

Moxham also suggested mentoring could help employers manage mental health problems. “Older workers could mentor younger staff or new starters – it’s so helpful to have someone who knows the company culture to lean on, and not just in terms of mental health,” she said.

The increase in mental health issues at work, and their associated cost, has been highlighted in the public sector in particular this week. Figures obtained by the BBC found that the number of UK police officers and staff on long-term sick leave with mental health conditions has risen by 35 per cent over the last five years, reaching 6,129 cases in 2014-15, even though the overall workforce shrank during this period.

As People Management reported, the level of mental health-related sick leave in the civil service has increased to dramatic levels: it now accounts for 28 per cent of all absences in the Department of Health and 32 per cent in the Department for Communities & Local Government.

Moxham said employers could begin to target interventions in a range of areas: “While employee assistance programmes are a great way to access free and confidential counselling, and mental health first aid training for line managers can help them spot the signs of stress and mental health issues, it is also important that employers actually signpost this sort of thing to their staff.”


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