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Work-related mental health issues are at record levels. Why are we ashamed to talk about it?

BY 

As of last year, work-related anxiety and depression have accounted for more than half of all working days lost in the UK. Take a moment to think about that: the thing most likely to prevent you from doing your job is your workplace itself.

It’s a stark and somewhat bewildering statistic – because this was not always the case. Somewhere in our climb up the corporate ladder, it seems we’ve made a major misstep. The question is, where?

Managers struggle with the same anxieties that afflict juniors

To paint a broader picture of mental well-being among the UK’s workforce, we anonymously interviewed 1,200 of you – from company founders and executive directors to junior employees and interns.

Here’s what we learnt: while we all have certain difficulties specific to our line of work, or level of seniority, we are surprisingly united when it comes to our mental well-being. Managers struggle with the same anxieties that afflict their junior charges. Construction workers suffer a similar breed of pressure and uncertainty to school teachers.

Overall, more than half of you have experienced a mental health problem which you feel was linked to your job. A full 44% know just what it’s like to be overcome with anxiety so destabilising that it’s impossible to function at work. Your most commonly stated causes of workplace unhappiness? Long hours, lack of recognition from your employers and unreasonable targets.

But while it seems we’re perfectly adept when it comes to identifying the problems facing us, the bigger challenge comes in knowing how – and with whom – to share them. Of those of you who have taken time off work to look after your mental health, only half have been totally honest with your managers about the reason for your absence.

There’s also some scepticism with regards to whether or not the companies you work for truly have your best interests at heart. While half of you are aware of your workplace operating some form of employee well-being programme, 30% of you “strongly agree” that your employers are falling short on delivering what’s required of them. A few of you commented that you feel your company’s well-being policy is merely an exercise in “box-ticking” – designed to show willingness without creating meaningful change.

So, how do we change this? Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the nature of this magazine, many of you would like more opportunities to exercise and eat well during the working day. But you need your employers to accommodate this: a third of you say you rarely have time to work out on your lunch break, even when permitted to do so. What you want most is a cultural shift: towards flexible working practices, with greater autonomy over your hours and decisions.

Ending the Stigma

We have made some progress in dismantling outdated attitudes concerning mental health in our personal lives – with our partners, our friends, our family. But at work? The results of our research would suggest too many of us still feel we have to project an image of total self-possession, competence and unwavering stability in order to succeed in our chosen professions.

It’s notable that, when asked what would most discourage you from speaking to your manager about your mental well-being, the most common answer was personal embarrassment. Not fear of retribution, reduced chance of promotion or loss of earnings, but shame. We struggle, but we’re embarrassed to admit that we struggle.

In the November issue of Men's Health, you’ll find stories from six men who are well acquainted with this internal conflict. Each of them comes from very different professional backgrounds, each of them has a very different story to tell. Some have struggled with poor mental health, some saw others struggle and felt compelled to do something. Action, not just awareness, is what we need.

Ultimately, the term “work-life balance” is misleading. Our work is part of our life. A big part. It is not something to be tolerated or endured. At best, our work should provide us with joy, satisfaction and social connection. At the very least, it should not be a cause of harm.

 Scarlett Wrench is the Features Editor at Men’s Health and she specialises in food and nutrition, mental health, science and tech.

Video: A man’s emotional reflection on his 10-year long struggle with depression.