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WHO classifies burnout as a disease but stigma still dogs British workplaces

By Michael O’Dwyer, MA Financial Journalism

The World Health Organisation has added burnout to its official diseases classification list in a move that “adds legitimacy” to the struggles of sufferers. Burnout is a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.

In addition to adding “legitimacy”, the decision to recognise the condition as a disease would “help raise awareness in employers, who ultimately carry responsibility for preventing burnout in their workforce and offering proactive, timely support”, said Dr Nick Taylor, co-founder of, an online workforce wellbeing platform.

Mental illnesses such as stress, anxiety and depression, which are associated with burnout, now account for 57pc of all sick days taken in Great Britain, according to the Health and Safety Executive.

Despite the prevalence of mental ill health, new data has shown that there remains a strong stigma surrounding mental health conditions in the workplace. British employees are three times more likely to discuss physical ailments than mental health issues at work, research published by the ‘Where’s Your Head At?’ campaign this month showed.

Only one-third of workers felt confident talking to colleagues about common mental health struggles such as stress and depression, according to the survey of 2,000 employees published by the campaign, which is led by Mental Health First Aid England (MHFA) and Bauer Media.

A separate study by human resources consultancy ADP revealed that 61 per cent of employees believe their employer is not interested, or is interested only superficially, in their mental wellbeing.

“Despite the increased awareness around mental health in the workplace, employees are telling us that there is still a significant gap in how we think and act about physical and mental health at work,” said Simon Blake, chief executive of MHFA.

He called on employers “to translate awareness into action and stamp out the stigma of mental ill health in the workplace”.

Government statistics show that 300,000 people with a long-term mental health problem lose their jobs each year while Government-commissioned analysis has shown that mental ill health costs the UK economy £99bn a year, £42bn of which is borne by employers.

MHFA England wants it to be compulsory for all workplaces to have a mental health first aider, who can recognise the signs of common mental health issues and guide a person towards the correct support, similar to the existing requirement to have physical first aiders.

“Our research shows that people still feel the stigma of discussing mental health in the workplace, fearing they will be seen as ‘unprofessional’ if they do disclose a mental health issue,” said campaigner Natasha Devon, who is part of the ‘Where’s Your Head At?’ campaign.

In addition to having to deal with unwell and unproductive workers, businesses that fail to put in place proper procedures to protect employees’ mental health face potential legal repercussions.

“Businesses could not only face legal claims from employees but also find themselves being investigated by the Health and Safety Executive if it is believed that a company isn’t ensuring the ‘health’ as well as the ‘safety’ of an employee,” said Mary Lawrence, a partner at law firm Osborne Clarke.

An earlier version of this story was published online on on 13 May 2019 under the headline ‘Mental health stigma still dogs workplace attitudes’ and in The Daily Telegraph on 14 May 2019 under the headline ‘Employees keep mental health problems to themselves at work’.

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