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Mental health at work – time to tackle workplace stress and discrimination

Published date
Too many workers are facing mental ill health due to poor treatment and conditions at work

This week is mental health awareness week - a week designed to start conversations and encourage people to consider their own mental health.

Mental health is an issue the TUC have been campaigning on for many years. We know that the way our members are treated in the workplace can have a profound impact on their lives and have a positive or negative effect on their mental health.

Our research has also revealed that people with poor mental health face structural discrimination.

For example, we know that the pay gap for those with mental illnesses, phobias or panics is 29.8% which is equivalent to earning £2.70 less an hour, while those with depression earn 26.3% less  - equivalent to £2.45 less an hour.

The impact of discrimination and harassment at work

Our research has also shown that one of the key causes of mental ill health is poor treatment at work, including workplace discrimination.

This has been highlighted in several of our reports:

  • our Sexual harassment report revealed that workplaces where a culture of sexual harassment exists create a severe barrier for women. It found one in ten women reported sexual harassment had had a negative impact on their mental health and three per cent reported that there was a negative impact on their physical health.
  • our Racism at work report found that 44% of BME people who had experienced racial discrimination stated the experience had had a negative impact on their performance at work. Over half (53%) of BME workers who had experienced bullying or harassment said the experience had affected their mental health and 28% felt that they had had no option but to leave. This creates a toxic environment for BME workers.
  • our LGBT report found that over half (52 per cent) of respondents who experienced discrimination or harassment reported that it had a negative impact on their mental health, while a third said that it had had a negative effect on their performance at work.

Employers trying to change the worker – not the workplace

We have also seen an increase in awareness of mental health in the workplace and employers trying to put in place programmes to reduce workplace-related mental ill health.

And we know this is a big issue, as for example, the Health and Safety Executive published figures in 2018 that showed that 15.4 million working days were lost to work-related stress, anxiety and depression in 2017/2018.

We applaud the employers trying to get things right for their workers. Unfortunately, we have seen some adopt poor practice which, rather than trying to reduce stress, instead promotes “stress management” initiatives.

These programmes are not about prevention, but about putting the onus on the worker. They fail to address the underlying issues causing the mental ill health such as unachievable targets and undeliverable workloads.

As we highlighted in the TUC Mental health workbook , we have also seen a rise in the number of employers encouraging workers to cope with stress – this is commonly called ‘resilience.’ It is based on the idea that through training and personal development we can be helped to “bounce back” from adversity or change. It believes employees just need to develop the ability to handle the demands placed on them better rather than tackling the causes of that stress.

This is, unfortunately, the wrong approach. Employers should be protecting workers and creating a safe working environment that prevents workers from experiencing all forms of harassment and discrimination, and which reduces and manages stress.

What are the solutions?

Giving workers reasonable workloads is a start, as is taking a proactive approach to eliminate the causes of workplace stress.

Another good way is to ensure workers’ reasonable adjustments are kept in place. Our reasonable adjustment passport can help with that by putting in place a system where all agreed adjustments are recorded and therefore kept in place.

Employers should work with unions to create a workplace culture that is free of all forms of discrimination and harassment towards workers with mental health issues.

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