Sheep on bridge

Supporting a mentally healthy workforce

10 May 2017

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week and across the City workers are being encouraged to wear a Green Ribbon as part of the Lord Mayor's Appeal.

In recent weeks, highly regarded public figures have come out in support of mental health, most notably Prince Harry and co with their recent Heads Together #oktosay campaign. But with the rise of social media and other forums where people can make comments such as "I'm not convinced by this new trend of male public soul-bearing… Life's tough - man up" (Piers Morgan), the degrading stigma carries on.

Mental health encompasses a whole host of illnesses such as depression, stress, and eating disorders to name but a few. In 2015, 15.3% of the total employed population, 4.9 million people, were suffering from a mental health problem.

Shockingly, 1 in 10 people will be affected by depression during their lifetime, and 1 in 4 people in the UK will suffer from a mental health illness in the next 12 months.  In fact, more people are affected by mental illness every year than cancer or heart disease. The likelihood is that someone in the vicinity of your desk is affected by a mental health problem right now.

Employees and the workplace

Recently, the Mental Health Foundation and employee benefit specialist, Unum, produced the Added Value Report which surveyed employees to assess mental health as a workplace asset. Mind believes that 21% of employees admitted to calling in sick to avoid work, 14% had resigned, and 42% had considered resigning because of workplace stress.

Discrimination and self-stigma prevent people from disclosing their illness to their employer. Nearly half of people who have been diagnosed with a mental health problem in the last five years have taken mental-health related sickness absence but, worryingly, 45% of people have taken time off and given their employer another reason for their absence. Many employees feel uncomfortable even disclosing anything about their mental health to their employer, let alone having an open and frank conversation.

Economic significance

The recent Mental Health Taskforce Strategy suggests that £34 billion is annually spent on mental health, but that the total economic and social cost annually in England alone is £105 billion.

Worryingly for employers, 70 million work days are lost in the UK each year costing businesses approximately £2.4 billion per year.

The biggest concern for employers is, of course, the welfare of their employees. What is increasingly clear though is that mental health is having severe cost consequences due to rising absenteeism, staff turnover, and lost productivity to name but a few factors. So what can be and is being done to reduce these?

Breaking the stigma: what can businesses do to aid the mental health fight?

Despite all of the above, work is seen as a key factor in supporting and protecting mental health: 86% of Added Value respondents believe being at work is important to their mental health. Notwithstanding this, the report found that there is a lack of mental health support in the workplace as many employers lack the systems to recognise and address mental health issues.

Some initiatives being taken by companies include: counselling and informal buddy systems; email policies for limited after work-hours use; anti-bullying policies; stress awareness programmes; and work-life balance support. Indeed, Mind has suggested work-life balance and reclaiming lunch breaks can be valuable to an employee's mental health. Flexible working, adopted by many companies, is an effective way to promote a healthy work-life balance by allowing employees to work around commitments such as childcare. Moreover, many companies have introduced social activities such as book clubs, yoga sessions or other sports teams to promote interaction and active involvement amongst all levels of employees.

Regardless of the initiatives already being taken in the corporate business sphere, much more can still be done. The Added Value Report offers further insight into things employers can do to break the stigma and open the door on mental health issues:

1. Mental health and wellbeing as core assets

Having employees at all levels of the business hierarchy working towards a well-focused, open and honest programme which values mental health and wellbeing can open the conversation, aiding long-term productivity and profitability. Designated support staff within the business and occupational health contacts should be a core part of the mental health and wellbeing programme.

2. Compassionate and effective management relationships which value the lived  experience

The fundamental role that managers play in creating and supporting mentally healthy teams cannot be underestimated. Employers should ensure managers receive training on how to support and protect the mental health of their workforce and have in-depth knowledge of the services their employer offers. It is also paramount that the courage taken by employees to disclose a mental illness is valued and respected by the employer.

 3. Tackle discrimination

Discrimination on the grounds of mental health needs to be as unacceptable as discrimination on the grounds of gender, race, religion etc. Leadership on this should come from the top and all employees should be encouraged to disclose any discrimination they encounter, either directed towards themselves or their colleagues.

This week, like any other week, the fight goes on. Millions of people are still suffering and millions more will begin to suffer. If you do only one thing this week, help move the fight forward quicker by wearing your green ribbons with pride so that "together we can #endthestigma".