Are businesses managing or marginalising mental health?

In a recent interview with People Management magazine I was asked to give my opinion on whether poor line management can negatively impact an employee’s mental health and if appropriate training could improve the outcome for both the employee and employer. My immediate answer was naturally ‘yes’ and ‘yes’. Of course, as the CEO of a social enterprise which provides such training, I could also provide context and share real-life examples where training had improved the outcome for all concerned – including the wellbeing of the line manager themselves, not just those who they manage.

It is a widely reported fact that one in four of us will at some point experience a mental health issue and for the working population one in six people will experience anxiety or depression. As employers we therefore have an absolute duty of care to ensure that mental health is placed firmly at the top of our workplace health and wellbeing agendas, including making a Board level commitment that appropriate training is given to each and every line manager. We can’t necessarily predict who that one in sixth person might be, but what we can do is better equip ourselves, through training, to provide support when it’s needed.

So what are businesses doing to safeguard the mental health of their employees? Many have stress, absence management and other policies in place, but there are very few who have explicit mental health policies. Fear of being perceived as a workplace with ‘issues’ is often a reason why organisations steer away from being explicit about all the good mental health work they are doing or intend to do. However, our experience of talking to some of the City’s biggest employers, particularly those who are members of the City Mental Health Alliance, is that today’s recruits are actively looking to work for employers who value staff health and wellbeing, and that includes their approach to mental health. Therefore my question to all those businesses who are being progressive around the issue of mental health is – why aren’t you promoting it?

As the leading provider of workplace place mental health training in England, we feel privileged to have spent almost a decade working with businesses of all types and sizes that share some common goals: to break down the stigma attached to mental health, encourage a culture where mental health is positively discussed and ultimately reduce the impact that mental ill health has on the bottom line. One organisation which has worked wholeheartedly with us to achieve those is Unilever.

Only last month (July 2015) Unilever celebrated winning the Bupa Employee Wellbeing Award at the Business in the Community Awards (BITC). The judging panel was impressed with the overall effectiveness of Unilever’s Wellbeing Programme, a key part of which has been its commitment to mental health training. Our Workplace team has been working with Unilever since 2013 to roll out a series of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) courses and the impact has been hugely positive, with nearly 1400 Line Managers now trained in MHFA skills.

As highlighted by BITC, Unilever’s Wellbeing Programme has been effective in a number of areas.  Across the organisation, there has been a reduction in the stigma attached to mental ill health and among Line Managers there has been an increased understanding of what constitutes mental wellbeing. From a business perspective it is good news, too, with a reported increase in employee engagement and productivity. Work-related ill health attributed to mental health issues also reduced, as did – perhaps most impressively – linked absence and length of absence from work.

Globally, evidence shows our training improves mental health literacy within many different populations and sectors, with the key outcomes of participants’ increased knowledge and therefore confidence in helping someone who may be showing signs of mental ill health.  Not only are our courses internationally accredited, but the evaluation and quality assurance processes that underpin all of our training are second to none. That’s why along with Unilever, firms such as EY, Lend Lease and public bodies like the BBC, the Department of Health and NHS England have adopted our training products.

We know that MHFA training helps employees recognise those crucial warning signs of mental ill health in the workplace. They can then guide the affected person to appropriate support, whether that be adopting some self-help strategies, going to see their GP, accessing an Employee Assistance Programme or speaking to the Occupational Health or Human Resources team. This early intervention approach has been shown through many research studies to have a positive impact on an individual’s recovery and employers are starting to understand why this is a good thing, both for the employee and the business as a whole.

My hope for the future is that all employers, big and small, not only adopt a positive approach to tackling an issue which has financial implications for their businesses but that they also assign value to their staff’s mental health and wellbeing from a place of care and compassion, too.

MHFA_logo_RGB USE FOR WEBTo find out more about MHFA training please visit or email

A copy of the MHFA Line Managers’ Resource can be downloaded free of charge from


Poppy Jaman

Poppy Jaman is an internationally respected mental health advocate, national policy advisor and the CEO of successful social enterprise, Mental Health First Aid England (MHFA). With 18 years’ experience of influencing and leading change in public mental health, Poppy has worked in a number of roles which have required her to challenge the public’s perception of mental ill health.