Time to take ownership: physical and psychological safety in the workplace need equal footing

Louise Aston, Wellbeing Director at Business in the Community (BITC), reflects on the findings of BITC’s fourth annual survey of mental health and the workplace in this opinion piece.

“YouGov survey data from more than 4,000 UK employees informed BITC’s recent Mental Health at Work 2019 report: Time to Take Ownership in partnership with Mercer Marsh Benefits and BITC’s Wellbeing Leadership Team, shows that progress is being made but it is not happening with the scale and speed needed.

Unacceptably, employers are contributing to the psychological harm experienced by their staff through poor job design and working practices. Our findings showed that two in five (39%) UK workers experienced symptoms of poor mental health related to work in the past year, up from 36% in 2018.

The report also highlights that employers are not acknowledging or dealing with the adverse impact work has on employees’ mental health. Of the 39% of employees surveyed who have experienced poor mental health due to work, over half say this is due to pressure such as too many priorities or targets. 36% cited workload, a third (33%) said that this was caused by negative work relationships. Almost one in four (24%) explicitly cited bullying and harassment from their manager as a major cause.

In the UK, it is considered ‘normal’ for employees not to expect to be physically injured and equally, they should not expect to be psychologically harmed.

A profound cultural shift is paramount in order to achieve psychological safety. Instead of pushing managers towards tactical ‘band-aid’ solutions, which aren’t in themselves capable of radically shifting the national dial, business leaders need to think strategically.

It’s time for business leaders to take ownership and tackle the systemic causes of poor mental health in order to achieve parity between physical and mental health.

It was the Government’s “No Health Without Mental Health” report (2011) that referenced the parity of esteem for the first time. This was defined as “valuing mental health equally with physical health”. Parity enables employers to provide a holistic, ‘whole-person’ approach to every employee with their physical and mental health needs treated equally.

Barriers to parity in the workplace include: a lack of support, which can prevent employees with mental health issues getting treated with the same vigour as if they had a physical health issue; a lack of openness; and persisting stigma that disclosing a mental health issue could lead to potential negative consequences.

  • 41% of employees experiencing a mental health problem reported that there had been no resulting changes or actions taken in the workplace
  • 51% of employees feel comfortable talking about their mental health issues
  • 9% of employees who disclosed a mental health problem were subsequently disciplined, demoted or dismissed.

The discussion around mental health and the workplace has moved on and business leaders now need to step up and make direct changes to the way they think about and tackle mental health issues.

By encouraging empathy and an inclusive workplace culture, built on a foundation of psychological safety, companies can ensure lasting change.

The 2019 report sets out recommendations in consensus with nine national partners to show businesses how to create positive, inclusive workplace cultures that support good mental health.

We urge all employers to sign up to the new Mental Health at Work Commitment. Details of how to do this can found on the Mental Health at Work website. The Commitment was developed in partnership with BITC’s Wellbeing Leadership and the Thriving at Work Leadership Council and is aligned to the recommendations in our report.

In a crowded and confusing marketplace, the Commitment is a simple umbrella framework to improve mental health at work. It draws together key activity, which employers have tried and tested, and provides a simple, practical way for employers to navigate the complex mental health landscape.”



Xenia Koumi

Xenia is a Public Health Specialist at the City of London Corporation and leads the Business Healthy programme