There needs to be a significant change in the way employers handle mental health issues, Dame Carol Black has said.

The national director for health and work told People Management that there needs to be a cultural shift in attitudes in order to deal with the stigma that surrounds mental illness and to tackle discrimination in the workplace.

“If you return to work today having had your knee replaced, we’d all be very comfortable in welcoming you back,” she said. “But what we have not been so good about is welcoming people back to work after they’ve been away for a while with a mental health problem.”

It is estimated that mental health costs employers £26 billion each year, with £8.4 billion of this sum attributed to sickness absence.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development Absence Management survey for 2011 revealed that for the first time stress and mental ill health are now the main causes of long-term sick leave.

Another survey by the organisation found that, of the 2,000 UK workers polled, 26 per cent had experienced some form of mental illness while being in employment.

The research also revealed that most workers were afraid to disclose mental health problems including stress and anxiety to their employers.

Dame Black said that employers need to think about how they can better manage both the causes of mental health problems in the workplace and how they respond to them in their inclusion policies.

She added: “It’s only when we can start to talk about this issue openly that we can start to accept we will all have mental stress at some time in our lives and some of us will need more time off than others. This is part of health, just as physical health is, and is a huge cultural change we have to go through.”

In November 2011 a government-funded independent review of the sickness absence system led by Dame Black outlined a series of proposals to change the way mental health is addressed in the workplace.

On Monday January 16th, to coincide with Blue Monday, Inclusive Employers, Mind and The Work Foundation are holding an interactive session to discuss creating mentally healthy workplaces.

The panel will include Alistair Campbell who will give a personal view of the stresses involved when working in a high pressure environment.