Charity warns of mental health strain on public sector workers

Mind says higher stress levels, including in central government, lead to three times the number of sick days due to mental health compared to private sector


By Richard Johnstone

01 Jun 2017

Photo credit: Fotolia

Public sector employees are more likely to suffer from mental health problems than their counterparts in private businesses, a poll by the mental health charity Mind has found.

The survey of over 12,000 employees across the public and private sectors found a higher prevalence of mental health issues in the public sector, and pointed to a lack of support available when people do speak up.


According to the charity, public sector employees are over a third more likely to say their mental health was poor than their peers in the private sector (15% versus 9%), and far more likely to say they have felt anxious at work on several occasions over the last month (53% compared to 43%).

This has an impact across the public sector, with staff saying they had taken an average of nearly three days off sick in the last year because of their mental health, compared to less than one day on average for workers in the private sector.

Overall, nearly half (48%) of public employees had time off because of their mental health, compared with less than a third (32%) of the private sector workforce.

Mind chief executive Paul Farmer said the figures showed mental health would be one of the biggest domestic issues facing the next government.

“As a nation our expectations for better mental health for all are higher than ever and the next government must rise to this challenge,” he said.

“A vital part of changing the lives of people with mental health problems is to tackle the culture of fear and silence in the workplace that stops people opening up about what they are experiencing. This data shows that the public sector in particular is making progress here. But it’s also vital that when people do speak out they get the right help and support at the right time. It’s clear there is still a long way to go in both the public and private sector to address the gap between people asking for support and actually getting what they need.”

The poll found that public sector workers are more likely to disclose that they have a mental health problem, are more likely to be up front about it if they do take time off because of their mental health and are more likely to report that the workplace culture makes it possible for people to speak openly about their mental health.

However, less than half (49%) of those working in the public sector said they felt supported when they disclosed mental health problems, a proportion that rose to over three in five (61%) in the private sector.

Farmer highlighted that by promoting wellbeing for all staff and tackling the causes of work-related mental health problems, all organisations can help keep people at work and create mentally healthy workplaces.

It is clear that workplace wellbeing needs to be "a priority throughout the public sector", he added. “We must see the next government commit to making change, as government and also as an employer themselves.”

In particular, the charity called on the next government to promote and share effective in-work solutions for employers, including wellbeing initiatives and Mind’s Workplace Wellbeing Index.

The survey comes after a former top government lawyer told Civil Service World that Whitehall leaders will need to take action to ensure the wellbeing of civil servants during the “very long, tough haul” of the Brexit negotiations.

Speaking at the launch event of the Brexit Exchange forum for UK and European businesses to set out their priorities for the talks, Sir Paul Jenkins said the process represented the biggest challenge for the civil service outside the second world war.

“We need to focus in on resilience and wellbeing because actually this is a very, very long tough haul.”

Civil service chiefs will therefore need to “recognise the strains” that will be caused by the negotiations, he said.

“I think there is a big leadership issue for the leaders of the civil service, recognising that the strains and the stresses that they will be under but also their teams will be under.”

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