HomeWellbeing“Work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 40% of work-related ill health” – Ruth Sutherland, CEO, Samaritans

"Work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 40% of work-related ill health" - Ruth Sutherland, CEO, Samaritans

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To mark National Stress Awareness Day, we spoke with Ruth Sutherland, CEO, Samaritans to get her opinion about stress and mental ill health within society today, and what obstacles people still face in 2018.

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Ruth Sutherland, CEO, Samaritans

Samaritans was founded in 1953 by Chad Varah, a vicar in the Church of England Diocese of London. The reasoning behind this was because he had held a funeral for a girl aged fourteen who had killed herself.  Varah was alarmed about the fact that she didn’t feel she had anyone to talk to, and therefore felt she had no option. He then advertised in the newspaper encouraging people to volunteer at his church, listening to people contemplating suicide.

Now, over 60 years later Samaritans are still that supportive voice at the end of the phone dedicated to supporting those who feel they need to talk, but perhaps don’t know who to talk to. To mark National Stress Awareness Day, Ruth Sutherland speaks exclusively to HRD Connect offering practical advice to employers on how best to support employees emotionally and mentally.

Do you think mental health within society will ever be given the same importance as physical health?

Absolutely. There’s been a real shift in attitudes in recent years. But we still have some way to go. Mental and physical health are very closely connected and mental well-being plays a major part in good physical health. Learning what keeps us physically and mentally well is a key life skill, as is knowing when and where to get help for periods of physical and mental ill health.

Everyone can be overwhelmed at times, anyone can have suicidal thoughts, everyone can help.  Achieving real change starts with all of us learning emotional literacy, knowing how to recognise and manage emotions. This is as important as learning to read and write, and the earlier in life we start the better.

The media has been a great platform for normalising mental health, but do you think it’s still a taboo subject? 

People living with mental illness face the duel challenge of living with the illness itself, and the stigma that surrounds it.

This is particularly true in the workplace. Employees who have suffered from mental illness say they didn’t want to let anyone down, or they didn’t want to be a seen as a poor performer. We want to create workplaces where employees feel supported.

Do you think mental health is discussed enough within a workplace/professional environment?

Although three out of five employees have experienced mental health issues at work, only one in ten feel able to tell their line manager or HR[i]. We all have a responsibility to support our colleagues and employees, to look out for them and offer help when needed. Now mental health and suicide is being discussed more openly, we can bring about real change in the workplace. In 2016–2017, work-related stress, depression, or anxiety accounted for 40% of work-related ill health and nearly half of all working days lost.[ii] It makes sense for employers to support their workforce and help them maintain their wellbeing.

The theme of this year’s Mental Health Week is stress – with that in mind how can employees start to feel empowered to talk about their mental health rather than concealing it?

Stress at work is commonplace and has a detrimental effect on our economy and productivity. Samaritans aims to encourage employers to provide support through partnerships like Wellbeing in the City. For example, the Bank of England has developed an internal Mental Health Network, is part of the Lord Mayor’s Appeal Green Ribbon Campaign and our Wellbeing in the City initiative.


“People living with mental illness face the duel challenge of living with the illness itself, and the stigma that surrounds it.”


In your own personal opinion, how comfortable do you think employees would be admitting to feeling mentally unwell as a reason for absence?

Our volunteers hear from employees who have experienced crippling anxiety, which affects their ability to do their job, and their relationships inside and outside work. They find it hard to ask for help. Employers need to create a supportive environment where people feel able to admit they are struggling, and colleagues look out for each other without judgement.

What advice would you give employers who are managing mental health in the workplace?

One of the reasons Samaritans created Wellbeing in the City was to bring listening skills into the workplace.  The aim is to give people skills to intervene, actively listen and manage difficult conversations.

Can you tell me about your new launched Wellbeing in the City tool?

As part of This Is Me and the Lord Mayor’s Appeal, we have created two free, flexible and interactive online programmes, Samaritans Active Listening Skills and Samaritans Wellbeing Toolkit.

They provide listening skills training and education about the signs that someone may be struggling. Our aim is to provide support before someone reaches crisis point. After PwC trialed Wellbeing in the City, a small group of staff were surveyed and all of them felt more comfortable talking about their mental health. PwC is expanding the programme.

Can you give employers three pieces of advice that will help transform their working culture to be more open and honest about mental health?

  • Take the time to raise awareness among senior management.
  • Provide training and resources, so the organisation can respond and offer the appropriate support.
  • Promoting employee wellbeing should be a key part of your organisation.

Fostering a healthy work-life balance through flexible, home, or part-time working should also be part of company policy.

To find out more or to register for the Samaritans online programme visit www.samaritans.org/wellbeinginthecity

[i]Business in the Community. (2017) Mental Health at Work Report 2017. London: Business in the Community.

[ii] Health and Safety Executive (2017) Work-related Stress, Depression or Anxiety Statistics in Great Britain 2017.

[iii] ONS. (2016). Suicides in England and Wales by local authority. United Kingdom: Office for National Statistics. Figure based on 5 year average 2012-2016

[iv]Business in the Community. (2017) Mental Health at Work Report 2017. London: Business in the Community.


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