Poor line management, long hours and feeling underemployed are major causes of mental health issues at work, say experts

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At the Association of British Insurers (ABI) Mental Health Breakfast Dialogue in London yesterday, experts agreed that, in particular, employers should focus on better training line managers to recognise and support workers suffering from mental ill health.

Speaking at the event were Professor Stephen Bevan, director of the Work Foundation's Centre of Workforce Effectiveness, Paul Farmer, chief executive of mental health charity Mind, Dr Mark Winwood, clinical director for psychological health at AXA PPP Healthcare, Katharine Moxham from Group Risk Development and Dr Paul Litchfield, BT group chief medical officer.

"The two most commonly reported contributors to stress are poor line management and long working hours," said Dr Winwood. "Managers can be bad for your health. Line managers should be coached and supported to become the best people managers they can be.

Winwood added: "Relatively simple skills like being aware of how your people are looking, sounding and being in the workplace can help managers identify when their colleagues are struggling. It takes investment and time to develop managers but the benefit far outweighs the cost."

Professor Bevan said that the link between mental health, physical health and business profitability was clear, quoting that mental health issues cost the UK's GDP £52 billion a year.

Bevan also pointed out that many employees, especially recent graduates, felt as if their skills weren't being put to good use. "One of the hidden problems is underemployment," he said. "That can lead to mental health issues."

All panellists agreed that a culture change in workplace and wider society to be more accepting of mental illness was crucial. But with one in three people in the UK saying they would not be willing to work with someone with a mental health problem, there is still some way to go.

Mind's Paul Farmer said the role of senior leadership was key in making sure employees felt comfortable disclosing any problems. "Disclosure is the challenge," he said. "It's not easy. But it's a sign of achievement in a company if people feel comfortable disclosing mental health problems to a line manager or HR department. We want to foster a culture of appropriate disclosure."

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