1 in 2 disguising mental health concerns upon returning to work


Laptop and mouse on office desk
Image credit: Luca Bravo (Unsplash)

Half of workers returning to the office feel they need to hide any signs of poor mental health from their employers, according to a new survey


March 16th 2020 saw many of us having to adapt to new working environments as the country entered its first period of national lockdown. For millions of us, our homes became our new office as the government ordered people to spend as little time as possible in their normal work environment.


In July these restrictions were lifted, handing employers the decision to ask their staff to return to their place of work, remain exclusively working from home, or adopt a more flexible approach to where they carry out their work.


Reports have shown that the need to adapt to a new workplace has had a substantial psychological impact on many, but few have felt capable of sharing their health concerns with their employer or their colleagues whilst working from home.


And now, as returns to the office increase, it seems this perspective remains.


In a new survey carried out by healthcare provider Lime Insurance, over half of workers (51%) feel the pressure to disguise poor mental health conditions when facing colleagues in person.


This is despite growing concerns among employees in the post–pandemic time, with 40% saying they feel less resilient than before the pandemic, and 26% feeling they aren’t coping at all.


Among those struggling, women, and especially younger women, feel the most pressure to put on a brave face in front of male colleagues.


The survey also shows only 20% of staff are not worried that stress will be visible to others.


A long-established issue


It has never been easy for people to talk openly about mental health in the workplace. A pool in 2019 shows 2000 staff on average took 3.75 days off for mental health reasons and 55% of them covered it with excuses of physical sickness. Only 32% told their boss that the real reason was related to their mental health.


And the long lockdown has made things worse. A survey by Mind of 16,000 people reveals more than two-thirds of adults reported that their mental health worsened during lockdown.

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Data from the NHS show just how many have been affected. In April this year, 1.41 million people were in contact with mental health services and 364,691 new referrals were received. In March 2020 – when the first UK lockdown was implemented - 1.31 million people were in contact with services and 214,893 new referrals were made to mental health support services.


A lack of social interaction is thought to be one of the main reasons for people struggling during lockdown, with higher-than-usual video and telephone communications likely exacerbating the issue. Sadly, government guidance for working safely during the pandemic does not give any instructions for mental health support.


Workplace attitudes are improving


The good news is more and more employers are willing to provide mental health support. According to research from Business in the Community (BITC), 55% of employees experienced a positive outcome when reporting mental health issues to their employer in 2019, while 63% experienced a positive outcome in 2020.


Accordingly, the number of employees who felt comfortable talking about mental health rose from 56% in 2019 to 62% in 2020.


“The pandemic has acted as a catalyst to elevate mental health on a parity with physical health," said a BITC spokesperson. "The progress made and the reduction of stigma in the face of unthinkable challenges this year shows that companies can do more to support their employees’ mental health.


“Positioning wellbeing at the heart of business planning and job design will promote long-term mental health benefits,” it adds.


Written by Wanyuan Song

News reporter for Talking Mental Health