October blog: Supporting mental health at work in the public sector - on World Mental Health Day and beyond

By Faye McGuinness, Head of Workplace Wellbeing Programmes at Mind.

Photo of Faye McGuiness from MIND

10 October 2019

Today is World Mental Health Day, and with mental health problems affecting one in six British workers each year,[1] it is not surprising that many local authorities are starting to look more closely at how they can support the wellbeing of their people on an ongoing basis.

Mental health problems can significantly impact individuals and the people around them. Beyond this, there is also a significant financial cost associated with poor mental health.

Poor mental health costs UK employers between £33 billion and £43 billion a year.[2]

This cost is made up of absenteeism, “presenteeism” (when individuals are less productive due to poor mental health in work), and staff turnover. It amounts to an average cost per employee of between £1,205 and £1,560 per year.[3] And analysis by Deloitte shows that this cost is disproportionately borne by the public sector.[4]  

Money spent on improving mental health has shown a consistently positive return on investment. Local government, which collectively employs over two million people,[5] therefore has a huge opportunity, as well as a responsibility, to lead the way on promoting employee mental health.

Mind’s Workplace Wellbeing Index is a benchmark of best policy and practice. It helps organisations find out where they are doing well and where they could improve their approach to mental health in the workplace. The index is made up of staff and employer surveys to help assess where the gaps lie between the organisation’s approach and staff experiences.

In 2018/19 nearly 21,000 public sector staff took part in the Index from across 38 organisations. Our analysis reveals that:

3 in 4 (75 per cent) of public sector employees have experienced poor mental health.[6]

This contrasts with two in three (66 per cent) of private sector employees. When we look specifically at the public sector employees who had experienced poor mental health while at their current employer, just half (52 per cent) have disclosed this to their employer.[7]

What might be behind these statistics, and what can public sector employers do to improve them?

While as a society, we are making progress in raising awareness about mental health problems, stigma in the workplace remains a huge barrier to people accessing support. Employers therefore need to take an organisation-wide approach to creating a culture where people feel able to disclose.

It starts with the tone from the top

Leaders can:

  • speak out about mental health. Share their own experiences and create platforms for others to do the same.
  • role model positive behaviours, like taking breaks, not working during time off, and recuperating after busy periods.
  • sign the Time to Change Employer Pledge to demonstrate commitment to changing how we think and act about mental health in the workplace.

Beyond promoting this broad culture change, local authorities also need to make sure that when employees do disclose a mental health problem to their line manager that manager is equipped to provide appropriate support.

Promoting effective people management is vital

Analysis of our Workplace Wellbeing Index results shows that among the public sector employees who felt able to disclose their mental health problem to their employer, just four in ten (39 per cent) said their situation improved as a result. Meanwhile, five in ten (52 per cent) said it stayed the same, and one in ten (nine per cent) said it got worse.[8]

Investing in good management doesn’t have to be complex, or expensive. It can include:

  • making sure managers have regular catch-ups with staff that include asking open and non-judgmental questions about wellbeing
  • providing training to all managers on mental health and stress management – including how to spot the signs and how to have supportive conversations
  • having clear guidelines in place for managers on supporting people with mental health problems
  • encouraging and supporting positive manager behaviours.
One council’s approach to equipping their line managers

As part of its broader approach to mental health at work, Oxford City Council identified the need to better equip their line managers to support employees. This included delivering training and workshops for all managers covering topics such as understanding mental health, spotting the signs of mental health problems, effective listening skills, and how to signpost employees to sources of appropriate internal and external support. Read more about the council’s approach.

Our analysis shows that managers in the public sector are generally relatively effective (when compared with counterparts in the private and third sectors) at encouraging and role modelling some positive behaviours, such as taking lunch breaks, working sensible hours and resting and recuperating after busy periods. However, public sector managers were slightly behind the pack in terms of encouraging employees to take annual leave and to take sick leave.[9]

As with all positive manager behaviours that support mental health, encouraging your employees to adopt them isn’t enough. Our detailed analysis confirms that encouraging and role modelling together delivers the best outcomes.

Other areas that impact mental health at work in the public sector

Nearly one in four (23 per cent) of public sector employees don’t feel that their workload is manageable.[10] Beyond this, issues with workload (which may not come as a surprise to a sector now almost synonymous with “doing more with less”), as well as a negative view of the physical work environment stood out as particularly impacting the mental health of public sector employees.

Find the resources you need to shape your organisation’s approach

While I’ve drawn out some general trends here that are impacting mental health across public sector workforces, every council will be facing specific challenges, and at a different place on their journey to supporting employee mental health at work.

The Mental Health at Work website is a ‘first stop’ to find the resources you need to meet your specific objectives. It brings together documents, guides, tips, videos, courses, podcasts, templates and information from key mental health organisations, as well as employers, across the UK. For example, there is an employer guide from Bristol City Council. Helpful tools mean you can easily filter your search to find what you need fast.

Why not take some time out this World Mental Health Day to check out mentalhealthatwork.org.uk and see how your organisation can better support employees ever.


[1] CIPD in partnership with SimplyHealth. (2012). Absence Management Annual Survey Report. CIPD.

[2] Thriving at Work: The Stevenson / Farmer review of mental health and employers, 2017.

[3] This cost is for all employees, not just those who are unwell.

[4] The public sector makes up one fifth of the UK labour force, but bears one quarter of total employers costs for poor mental health. Source: Mental health and employers: the case for investment, Deloitte, October 2017.

[5] www.lgiu.org.uk/local-government-facts-and-figures

[6] Analysis of Mind’s Workplace Wellbeing Index 2018/19. Full results to be published in autumn 2019.

[7] Analysis of Mind’s Workplace Wellbeing Index 2018/19. Full results to be published in autumn 2019.

[8] Analysis of Mind’s Workplace Wellbeing Index 2018/19. Full results to be published in autumn 2019.

[9] For example, one in five (22 per cent) of public sector employees disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement: ‘My manager encourages me to take sick leave’. By contrast, this figure was closer to 1 in 10 for private sector employees (13 per cent) and third sector employees (nine per cent).  

[10] Analysis of Mind’s Workplace Wellbeing Index 2018/19. Full results to be published in autumn 2019.