Speaking openly about mental health in the workplace

Chris Rivers

In this blog, Christine Rivers lead for the Workforce Disability Equality Standard (WDES) at NHS England and NHS Improvement, shares her thoughts on the importance of having open conversations with staff around disability and mental health.

I have worked in the area of equality, diversity and inclusion for many years in the NHS, as well as roles in the higher education and voluntary sectors. A recurring theme I have seen is around disabilities that are often remaining hidden at work because of fears of stigma, prejudice and discrimination. There are parallels with other groups, such as LGBTQI+, where there may be choice in telling others, with associated risks in sharing personal information.

Within the wider protected characteristic of ‘disability’, there are common, shared experiences, as well as unique experiences based on specific disabilities. The lived experience at work of someone with a mental health condition varies from someone who is D/deaf, yet both may experience discrimination and face barriers in areas such as reasonable adjustments, all of which prevent Disabled staff from realising their full potential.

In a previous NHS role at a mental health trust, a colleague and I set up and co-led a staff network for people with lived experience of mental ill health, named LEN (Lived Experience Network) by its members. During our meetings we frequently discussed stigma and why lived experience of mental ill health is often hidden at work. Many colleagues then approached me and shared their lived experience, including some colleagues I’d known for a long time. It became clear that having network co-leads openly speaking about, and supportive of mental health in the workplace, built confidence and trust, allowing for sensitive conversations to take place in confidence and in a safe place.

For many people with hidden disabilities, the choice to have a conversation is balanced, and there are potential gains: 

  • getting workplace adjustments if required 
  • increasing the awareness of lived experience amongst the workforce
  • belonging and not having to hide an important aspect of yourself 
  • greater sensitivity in colleagues when talking about mental health 
  • greater visibility and more people with shared narratives 
  • support from line manager and/or colleagues. 

The potential losses are of negative stereotypes of what it means to be ‘mentally ill’, related beliefs about your capacity to perform at your best at work, and potential impact on your career development, talent and abilities.

When disabilities are hidden, we lose the potential benefits that Disabled people bring to an organisation providing healthcare services, where 70 per cent of the people using our services are Disabled.

We know through feedback we have received during the pandemic how important it is for leaders and managers to build trust, show compassion and foster open conversations with staff. Staff networks can also play and important role, providing a safe space for staff to share experiences and gain support from colleagues.

For hidden disabilities, the key is to not make assumptions and to open-up as many spaces as possible to support conversations about disability. In the end, we all make decisions about what we share and to whom, according to our perception of the consequences and the safety of the person/space. Let’s increase those spaces!

Further information

Learn more about the WDES. Access guidance on disability, making reasonable adjustments in the workplace, our WDES resource library and tips for holding health and wellbeing conversations. 

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