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The stigma of mental ill health at work: The need for openness

Posted by on in Mental Health

The Ashes, especially from Englands perspective, took another turn for the worse last night when it was revealed that Jonathan Trott has had to leave the Tour in Australia due to a stress-related illness. He's admitted to suffering from the problem on and off for some time, and has been apparently getting support from the England backroom staff to help him manage this. However touring in Australia, with an English team, is always going to present a particularly high level of pressure.

A great demand to perform to the highest standards, long periods of touring and time away from home and family (common with most international sports stars) and a culture of 'macho' banter, which can occasionally tip over into personal abuse seems to have pushed Trott beyond his ability to cope and manage the situation. However, the fact that he has felt able to publicly admit to a problem should be admired, especially when there still seems to be a stigma associated with suffering from a mental illness. Hopefully this means that the days of pretending that such problems don't exist are nearing their end. In the past, international sportsmen (particularly men) would have been very unlikely to reveal openly that they suffered mental health difficulties, and would have been actively discouraged from doing so by their coaching and management teams. The English cricket team though, have been open in the past about player mental health problems, notably with Marcus Trescothick, and they are to be applauded for doing so.  

So what can other sports teams - and business alike learn from this?

It is very important that when high profile people suffer from a common mental disorder (e.g. depression, anxiety or stress), whether in sport, business, politics or any other walk of life, that they feel they are able to reveal it rather than covering it up. This is part of the process of helping the individual affected to recover and manage their condition by taking control and being open about it as well as contributing to reduced stigmatisation.

We have seen in the news recently a number of top executives in businesses such as Lloyds Banking Group, Barclays, and politicians in the House of Commons owning up to their own mental health issue in the public arena - something which has undoubtedly contributed to Jonathan Trott's decision to be open about his own condition. But this doesn't mean we are quite there yet.

The mental health charity Mind found in a national survey, that 90% of working people who suffered from a mental health problem tended to tell their employer they were suffering from some physical illness, rather than a mental illness - as this is still much more acceptable. In many jobs, people are worried about being labelled ‘mentally ill’, for fear it could mean job loss or inhibited career advance. However, in most countries in the world, including some of the poorest, one in four to one in six people are suffering from a common mental disorder.  Mental health does not have any economic, social class or ethnic boundaries, and we are all potentially vulnerable in our lifetime. In the UK alone, the cost of mental ill health to the workplace has been estimated at over £27b per annum, with the costs to society as a whole in excess of £120b, when you take into account dementia, as well as the common and more severe forms of mental ill health.  

These statistics show that mental ill health is still a major stigma in the workplace, whether in high pressure/profile jobs or further down the socio-economic ladder. The key to reducing this stigma will be promoting a culture of openness, honesty and support so that those suffering from mental illness feel able to share their concerns with friends and colleagues. If we encourage and support more men and women in prominent roles to ‘come out’ regarding their mental health problems, we will be taking a huge step towards changing these attitudes.

To find out more about how the mental health charity Mind are supporting workplaces to combat the stigma around mental health visit and check out their mental health at work campaign.


Tagged in: mental health Stress


  • Guest
    Elaine Akester Tuesday, 26 November 2013

    I concur with the views expressed in this recent post by Professor Cooper. As a previous sufferer of anxiety and depression, I know how challenging it can be to reach out and be vulnerable with other people about your illness. However, it is only when you make yourself vulnerable to others, and acknowledge your suffering to others, that you can truly begin the sometimes lengthy process to full recovery. Unsurprisingly, in my coaching and people development business, I specialise in the area of resilience, as my own experience and recovery enables me to really empathise with another human beings experience. I also know that it can be re-built and continually developed, with a particular emphasis (in my opinion) on the social connectedness aspect.

    Going forward there is lots of work to be done, to enable our society to be more concerned and involved with
    our wellbeing; people in high profile positions like Jonathan Trott, give the "wellbeing" agenda more credence and urgency. It always takes courage to admit to suffering a mental illness. He is to be commended for his courage and honesty, and I like many others wish him a full recovery in time.

  • Guest
    Shumailla Dar Wednesday, 27 November 2013

    A good analysis, I've written similarly on the subject: we need to address this issue more now than ever.

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Guest Thursday, 23 November 2017

Cary CooperGood Day at Work®

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MD of Cary Cooper's business psychology firm, Robertson Cooper - for all things wellbeing, engagement and resilience at work.

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Professor Cary Cooper, Director and Founder of Robertson Cooper Ltd, Distinguished Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at Manchester Business School.

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