A shocking 68% of full-time workers polled would worry about telling their employer about a mental health condition, fearing a negative response, the Priory Group can today reveal.

The shadow of mental health stigma fell even more heavily over those whose job roles may be more precarious – an alarming 77% of part-time and over 80% of self-employed workers would worry about disclosing a mental health condition to an employer for fear of the repercussions.

The study flags-up a desire to escape workplace stigma at any cost, as over half of the population surveyed would be forced to consider self-employment in the face of workplace mental health stigma.

The Priory Group spoke with successful businessman Paul Booth, who has been affected by bipolar disorder during his career. He is now campaigning as an advocate for mentally healthy work environments.

He explained that those who suffer from mental ill health are a huge asset to the working environment; they effectively act as “canaries in the birdcage”. Paul’s family was decimated by the Pretoria Pit coal mining accident of 1910: “my grandmother woke up to find that every male from the surrounding four or five streets, from the age of 13 to the age of 61, had died that morning.”

This huge loss led him to consider “why was there no warning sign? In the old days, they would use a canary in a birdcage.” This led Paul to his insight about stress in the workplace: “I thought, well, gas in a coal mine – you can’t smell it, you can’t see it, which is a bit like stress at work”.

Paul uses this metaphor to explain stress in the workplace as a subtle and pervasive power that silently enters an environment and wreaks havoc upon its inhabitants. He explains that all workers are susceptible to workplace stress, but wonders “where are their canaries?”

Where are the warning signs? Mental health sufferers are first in line. “We are the canaries. We are the people who will show first if the environment isn’t conducive in terms of stress – the first person who will suffer is the person who is not particularly resilient to stress”.

The study also found that:

  • 79% of those polled without a mental health condition would worry about telling their employer if they did have one.
  • 91% of those awaiting a mental health diagnosis feel the stigma around mental health would lead/has led them to consider self-employment.
  • Three quarters of women would worry about telling their employer, compared to two thirds of men.
  • 38% of 18-24 year olds felt they could tell their employer about a mental health condition. The second most likely age group to be able to tell were the 25-34 year olds.

Dr Richard Bowskill, Consultant Psychiatrist at the Priory Hospital Brighton and Hove:

“There’s a huge amount of stigma out there, especially in the workplace. I’ve had numerous cases where people have been sacked because of their depression; they’ve been discriminated against because of a mental illness.

I think the big thing is the impact of stigma. People generally say that the stigma of having a diagnosed mental illness can be as bad as the symptoms that they actually experience.  They compare it with other illnesses, for example the stigma of cancer or heart problems – the stigma of mental illness is still very much higher.”

Poppy Jaman, CEO of Mental Health First Aid England:

“Sadly, The Priory’s research findings are indicative of the stigma that continues to shroud mental health and the impact it has on those who are experiencing a mental health issue.  We already know that one in six British workers will experience a mental health problem at some point in their career, but the fear of discrimination often prevents them from accessing help and support early on and these latest figures further demonstrate the very real fear that employees have around disclosing mental health issues to their employers.”