How small organisations
can support
their employees’
mental health


Mental ill health doesn’t discriminate by seniority, class or gender; and one in four1 of us will experience mental ill health at some stage in our lives.

It is the leading cause of absences of more than four weeks2, and if left untreated, the risk of an issue worsening increases. Someone off work for 6 months or longer has an 80% chance of being off work for five years3.

The size of the problem

This is a huge issue in society in general, but also for businesses and in particular small companies.  If someone is absent through ill health in a larger company there is more scope to spread workload among a wider base of colleagues, but smaller employers don’t have that luxury.

With poor mental ill health costing UK businesses between £33 - £42 billion each year4, ignoring the problem is something small businesses can ill afford to do.

How to make mental health support manageable

Such a huge issue can feel unscalable. And, as with any issue that feels too daunting to approach, the important thing is to break it down into manageable chunks.

Legal &General, one of our partners, held their Not A Red Card Mental Health Forum in October 2017. As part of the day, delegates identified common barriers to supporting mental health in the workplace along with solutions for each. With fewer resources, the barriers could be even more challenging for SMEs:

1. Poor education, literacy and understanding of mental health

2. Negative narrative, language, communication surrounding mental health.

3. Line management, environment and culture

4. A lack of role models speaking out in business.

Below are some tips from Legal & General on how to overcome those challenges:

Challenge 1:
Education, literacy and understanding of mental health

When looking at the barriers to talking about mental health in the workplace, concern about others’ perceptions were a common theme. Many employees who suffer with poor mental health worry that their managers won’t think they’re up to the job if they speak up about their illness.

They fear discrimination, subconscious bias from their manager, their career being affected, being seen as a failure and not belonging. They worry their colleagues will treat them differently, will feel they have to pick up the slack and end up resenting them. They believe their issue will be seen as a personal issue and not the responsibility of their employer.

This stops employees letting others know they have an issue. And that makes it very difficult to help.

The solution:

As with all taboos, the answer is in education. In practice, this means training. Training is one of the most effective ways to educate people about mental health, as well as how to support it.

All levels of seniority in a workforce can benefit from training. This can include:

  1.  How to create an environment that is conducive to promoting positive mental health.
  2.  Helping employees recognise symptoms in themselves and others.
  3.  Providing guidance and knowledge on how to manage employees that become ill.
  4.  Learning how to reintegrate someone back into work after returning from illness: often a key component of recovery.

Specialist mental health training can help a company identify key stressors in their organisation, provide practical ways to minimise the effect, encourage positive mental wellbeing, give managers the confidence to deal with issues should they arise, and enable employees to know how to seek appropriate help.

Challenge 2:
Narrative, language, communication

Mental ill health covers a very broad spectrum, from stress and anxiety through to depression, psychosis and eating disorders. It’s easy to imagine the worst when hearing an employee is struggling with their mental health.

The language used to describe mental health has traditionally been very negative. This can put employees off from saying they have a mental health issue. And if they do, colleagues can avoid them altogether for fear of saying the wrong thing.


To change the narrative around mental health, we need to put it into context.

Often when we talk about mental health we are referring to poor mental health. The truth is that mental health isn’t just associated with mental illnesses; it can also be positive. After all, everyone has mental health, just like everyone has physical health, and sometimes is good and sometimes it’s not.

In the same way we describe ourselves as being in good physical health or tell colleagues that we are feeling under the weather, we need to start to use language to distinguish between being mentally well and mentally unwell.

It’s ok to ask a colleague how they are feeling mentally, just like it is ok to respond that you are feeling stressed, in a low mood or feeling great!

The more understanding there is, the easier it is to normalise conversations about it. Just as we have become more willing to acknowledge feeling stressed, it needs to be just as easy for someone to talk about more severe forms of anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions.

Proactively encouraging good mental health behaviours can help normalise talking about mental health in the first place. Acknowledging and nurturing mental wellbeing can also promote better mental health, help people feel comfortable discussing their mental health, and provide the environment for them to say when things aren’t right.

Challenge 3:
Line management, environment and culture

In the same way that many people feel out of their depth talking about others’ mental health, this is no different for managers. When managers lack the experience, knowledge and skills to deal with mental health this can have repercussions throughout the business.

The problem is exacerbated when this is coupled with an environment that supports poor mental wellbeing. For instance, habitually working long hours, unreasonable pressures to meet KPIs, expecting answers to emails 24/7.


Good mental health practices need to become the norm. It can be very worthwhile to engage employees in making this happen. Asking staff to generate their own health and wellbeing plans can give a sense of responsibility for their own wellbeing, as well as inform managers about what’s needed.

What gets measured gets done. So just as other positive work is rewarded, so can practices that support good mental wellbeing. There’s no reason why KPIs shouldn’t be set for taking lunchbreaks, taking full annual-leave entitlement, having a private area to chat about personal issues and encouraging physical activity.

Challenge 4: Lack of role models speaking out and telling their stories

Silence provides an environment where stigma can thrive.  Sports personalities, celebrities and the Royals have come forward in recent years to talk about their mental health, and this is playing an important part in removing the taboo. 97% of delegates at the Not A Red Card Forum said they believed the increase in coverage of mental health stories in sport is helping to destigmatise the topic. This shows the impact that role models can have, and it works in business too.


It’s important for employers to encourage role models in the business to talk about their own mental health experiences to help normalise the conversation. A role model is anyone within the business who has credibility and who other employees can relate to. It could be a senior manager, CEO or a junior who are open and willing to share their experiences. When staff see that it’s OK to talk about mental health, they’re more likely to talk too.

And that’s the first step.

Start the conversation

The first step is to encourage a conversation. A company that promotes role models to talk about their own mental health experiences, educates staff on mental health, trains their managers to encourage better mental health behaviours, and provides access to support, is one where employees feel they can speak about it.

A business that encourages its people to see that it’s not a red card offence to talk about mental health, is a business that will be in good shape, will build resilience and provide an environment where staff can thrive.

Find out more

To find out more about the key challenges and solutions for businesses managing mental in the workplace, you can download Legal & General’s Red Report: Mental Health in the Workplace: Challenges and Solutions.

Legal & General’s RED report
Thriving at Work, Stevenson, Farmer:


This article has been written in collaboration with Legal & General, one of Elect’s insurance providers. It is for information only and is not specific advice. It is based on our current understanding of the attributed research which may change in the future.