· News

Mental health awareness could be "going too far": HR responds

Mel Stride (pictured) argued that "normal ups and downs of human life" are not medical conditions -

Britain’s approach to mental health is at risk of going too far, the work and pensions secretary, Mel Stride, warned yesterday (21 March).

Unveiling plans to encourage 150,000 people who are off work with ‘mild’ illnesses to look for employment, Stride commented that “normal anxieties of life” are being labelled as an illness and suggested that people are being signed off work too easily for mental health conditions.

“As a culture, we seem to have forgotten that work is good for mental health,” Stride said.

“There is a real risk now that we are labelling the normal ups and downs of human life as medical conditions, which then serve to hold people back and, ultimately, drive up the benefit bill.”

Earlier this year, the Office for National Statistics reported that 2.58 million people were off work due to long-term illness, a record high.

Read more: Burnout affects a fifth of UK employees as long-term sick hits record high

According to Karl Bennett, wellbeing director of benefits provider Vivup, employers are not going too far to drive mental health awareness.

He told HR magazine: “It’s far from the truth that mental health awareness at work has gone too far.

“Two major issues lead to workplace stress and anxiety: uncertainty and lack of control. 

“There have been so many events outside of work that are impacting employers and employees, not least a cost of living crisis and a slow economy.

“With this, and longer waiting times to access support through the NHS, employees are increasingly turning to their employers for support.”

He added: “Personal and work-related problems stop employees working in their best way. When we're not working in the best way, productivity and performance are likely to drop, and presenteeism and absenteeism increases. 

“Building a company culture around wellbeing – both proactive and preventative – increases employee health and resilience.

“This includes training for managers on how to help people to return to work.”

Speaking to HR magazine, Rob Baker, founder of the consultancy Tailored Thinking, said: "Mel Stride’s ambitions are costly, counterproductive and short-sighted. They also run counter to the growing amount of research and evidence.

"From an employee perspective, being forced to work against one's will robs people of agency and the energy to do work that they are proud of – these are both fundamentals of positive mental health and wellbeing."

Read more: Understanding the spectrum of mental health support needs at work

Ian Dodd, workplace mental health campaigner, explained that asking people to return to work before they are ready could cause more harm than good.

He told HR magazine: “Pigeonholing someone with a mild condition is ridiculous, because conditions fluctuate. If you move people back into an environment that is stressful for them, they’re going to become more seriously ill.”

He added that the government should focus on creating mechanisms that hold employers accountable for their workplace mental health standards.

Simon White, chief people officer at Blink explained that it is employers’ responsibility to support employees.

Speaking to HR magazine, he said: “As employers, we need to be flexible to provide mental health support based on the individuals’ needs. 

“For some, that could mean that being at work is helpful. For others, time off is required.”

White noted that employees wouldn’t be asked to return to work if they were experiencing physical illness, so they shouldn't with mental illness.