The history of mental health at work: how did we get here?

The history of mental health at work

Today we want to talk to you about the history of mental health at work.

More and more of us are becoming aware about the importance of looking after our mental health at work. Reports like the Stevenson/Farmer review, and campaigns being run by charities, have raised a lot of awareness.

However, there is still a large gap between knowledge and action. Research has found that currently 300,000 people with a long-term mental health problem lose their jobs each year. We clearly still have a long way to go until employees’ mental health is fully looked after.

But how did we arrive at this point?


Psychology and mental health are new fields of interest in comparison to many other disciplines. The first interest in psychological effects at work arose from the work of the Health of Munition Workers Committee, which was set up in 1915. They realised that workers were less productive when they were tired and worked increasingly long hours.


Doctors started to work in the industrial setting to evaluate eligibility for worker’s compensation. These doctors were not well received by the workers, who saw them as a management tool. Recognising the need for standards and good practice among doctors working in the industrial setting, the Association of Industrial Medical Officers was founded in 1935.


Occupational physicians first began to demonstrate an interest in the psychological aspects of work at this time. By 1967, the Association of Industrial Medical Officers became the Society of Occupational Medicine. This change showed how the emphasis of the medical officers’ work had shifted from looking at the effects of industrial work to all types of work.


Since the 1970s, the work of occupational health workers has become more concerned with the psychological aspects of work. The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 was released, and is the primary piece of legislation covering occupational health and safety in Great Britain.


A survey undertaken in 1996 showed how much interest there was in the psychological aspects of work. 98% of organisations asked considered that the mental health of employees should be a company concern. 81% thought that there should be a company policy for mental health, but only 20% actually had a policy.


By this point, there have been a number of policies introduced or updated that aim to improve the wellbeing of those struggling with mental health, such as the Equality Act 2010.


Research seems to be blooming.

The Stevenson/Farmer report, ordered by Government, found that around 15% of people at work have symptoms of an existing mental health condition, and that the annual cost to employers is between £33 billion and £42 billion. Research by Deloitte found that 56% of people believe that their wellbeing is taken into consideration in business decisions “to a little extent” or “not at all”.

Awareness is growing, and research is rising, but we still have a long way to go until employees’ mental health is fully looked after in the workplace.


Mente are hoping to continue to make a big difference to the way that organisations deal with mental health, and we couldn’t really do a timeline of workplace mental health without including ourselves!

For more information about what we do, visit Mente Services.

References and more reading:

Fingret, A. (2000). Occupational Mental Health: A Brief History. Occupational Medicine, 50(5), pp.289-293.