Is Secretary for Work and Pensions Mel Stride right that Mental Health culture at work has “gone too far”?


The wellbeing industry has hit back at Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride’s controversial comments today that “mental health culture has gone too far” at work, largely agreeing that he risks undoing valuable progress and dismissing legitimate cases of employees struggling who need professional support.

Karl Bennett, Wellbeing Director of Vivup and Chair of EAPA, sums up the impact of the politician’s words as “unhelpful for people and organisations”. His concern is that these kind of comments will discourage workers from speaking openly about their mental health at work in future:

“We have been encouraging people to talk about their mental health, and we must not make that difficult for anyone. People, now, are more likely to talk about their mental health, it’s taken a long time to remove some of its stigmas. We don’t want people to have any reason to hide their issues away again. Blanketing everyone as being a ‘bit bluesy’ is minimising.”

Comments show ignorance of complex issue

Similarly, Neil Greenberg, Professor of Defence Mental Health, King’s College London, is struck by the ignorance of potentially suggesting that we need to pull back on talking about mental health at work: 

“It would be ridiculous to suggest we need to stop talking about mental health. Instead what we need to do is recognise that most mental health difficulties (initially at least) need healthcare solutions and that good management (and good collegial support) make a real and positive difference”.

Stride’s comments were made to The Telegraph Newspaper in which he talked about how, in his opinion, “normal anxieties of life” are now being labelled as illness; consequently he’s determined to get 150,000 people who are currently signed off work with “mild” conditions to get back into employment. He also argued that the increased public focus on mental health has led to people self-diagnosing conditions.

Outrage at trivialisation

Some experts, like Asal Shirazi BEM, medical physiologist and CEO of Autoimmune Support and Awareness Foundation, go as far as to say that they are “outraged” by these comments which are “pretty ignorant”. Her main concern is the fact that today’s “anxieties of life” are not to be trivialised and are enough to lead to serious ill health.

“If he [Mel Stride] was better educated on the physiology of stress and its affect on mental health leading to physiological disease then perhaps such ignorant remarks would not be made,” she says. “What with the stresses after the pandemic, the cost of living crisis and so many businesses struggling, how anyone can make such a sweeping, uneducated comment is beyond me!”

Tina Woods, Founder and CEO of Business for Health, agrees that the “implications of a once in a generation pandemic, coupled with an increasingly challenging economic environment” should not be underestimated in terms of its impact on the workforce’s mental health. If anything, we should be doing more, not less, she says:

We should be doing more, not less

“We must do more to ensure people are supported via innovative and forward-thinking workplace assistance and positive workplace health interventions, rather than castigate those struggling to navigate the complexities of mental health issues.”

Ngozi Cadmus, CEO, Happiworkers, believes we need to do more before employees even reach the workforce and focus on better education around mental health at school. She believes that it’s not so much that the mental health culture has gone “too far” but more that society needs to “equip children from an early age with tools to navigate life’s stressors, express emotions in a healthy manner, and differentiate between situational difficulties and clinical disorders”.

She adds:

“Social media undoubtedly exacerbates anxieties for many, highlighting the need for robust mental health literacy. Rather than labeling all challenges as illnesses, a more nuanced approach focused on prevention, emotional resilience, and access to quality care when needed could serve society better. Striking the right balance through education and resources is crucial.”

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Perpetuating stigmas

While Mental Health consultant and author Petra Velzeboer “broadly agrees” with Stride’s assertion that people are increasingly self-diagnosing and much of our anxieties are normal responses to the modern environment we live in, she “hesitates” to agree with such “broadbrush” comments where “we label ‘all people’ as self diagnosing”:

“That will perpetuate the stigma attached to people who truly are struggling. We need more empathy and nuance for managers discussing issues, especially as GPs rarely ask useful questions, either about lifestyle or environment, and often are simply fine signing people off when that may actually make symptoms worse.”

Psychologist Laura Geige, Managing Director, Glow Bar London, agrees, taking exception also to the “broadbrush” nature of the comments as being unhelpful. Mental health, she says, can’t be a “one size fits all” approach because it is a vast spectrum.

“Mild conditions” back to work

Particularly in response to the Secretary’s comments about getting people with “mild” conditions back into work, she says: 

“It is imperative to consider the individual’s overall well-being and capacity to work. Employment can indeed be beneficial for mental health, providing structure, purpose, and social interaction. But each person’s mental health needs and capabilities are unique, and what might be a mild condition for one individual could be debilitating for another.”

Geige says what’s needed here is a more nuanced understanding and compassion, a view echoed by many experts, including Mental Health First Aid England’s CEO Simon Blake.

Easy to dismiss the human distress

He says he could see how people could become “numbed” to the data which keeps showing that more and more people are falling out of work, with some groups disproportionately affected.

“It would be easy to dismiss the realities of human distress and mental illness and ignore the underlying causes of the increased impact of poor mental health. But we cannot afford to, the economic cost is huge,” he says.

According to Blake, healthy workplaces can only be achieved if we are willing to look beyond the obvious, or beyond broadbrush conclusions; which arguably describe Slade’s comments today.

“Whilst Covid’s legacy is here to stay, it taught us one very good thing, that we can create new ways of working where wellbeing and performance fuel one another,” he says.  “Our job is to use all we have learned, empathy and compassion to build workplaces that enable everyone to thrive.”

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