It’s counterintuitive to talk about mental health separately to physical health – ‘health’ represents our entire wellbeing, right? Yet ‘how’s your health’ and ‘how’s your mental health’ remain separate inquiries. And if you ask a colleague how they are, you are more likely to hear “Ok but my back’s playing up” or “I’ve got a splitting headache” than “I’m feeling so overwhelmed I sat in the car at lunch and cried” or “Much better since I started anti-depressants”.
But a staggering 61% of employees have experienced mental health problems where work was a related factor and in 2017/18, 1 in 6 were prescribed anti-depressants. In the same period, 15.4 million working days were missed due to stress, anxiety or depression. (Comparatively, only 1 in 7 suffer from migraines; and musculoskeletal disorders account for only 6.6 million missed working days.)
In simple terms, mental ill health could be costing your business up to £1,035 per employee. Yet there is evidence to suggest that for every £1 spent on training, organisations can expect a £10 return through reduced absence and increased productivity.
State of the Nation
2017 was a big year for Mental Health awareness: we saw the launch of Heads Together, spearheaded by the Royals; a pledge from Theresa May to transform mental health support prompted the independent Stevenson/Farmer Thriving at Work report; Time to Change launched a 5-year campaign focused at men and young people; the topic was even highlighted in the Queen’s speech.
2017 felt like a game changer.
However, despite growing momentum, the appointment of a suicide prevention minister in October 2018, a commitment to improving mental health services in the 2018 budget and £10 million pledged by The Wolfson Foundation, this is the current state of play:
- Suicide remains the leading cause of death among young people aged 20-34 years in the UK
- UK has the highest self-harm rate of any European country
- Just 13% of employees would be comfortable talking about mental illness at work
- Up to 300,000 people with mental health problems lose their jobs each year
- Last year, mental ill-health cost the UK economy £94 billion
Taboos around mental ill-health still haven’t shifted anywhere near far enough.
Plan of Action
From 2020 it will be compulsory for schools to teach children to build mental resilience, as well as recognise when others are experiencing mental ill-health, and what to do. This is a big step for future society’s health and wellbeing. But what about the generations in the workplace now?
In the last 12 months there has been a pitiful 6% increase in managers receiving mental health training in the workplace (from 24% to 30%). This is despite 85% of managers believing their team’s wellbeing is their responsibility.
The Stevenson/Farmer Thriving at Work Report, stated:
“[U]nderneath the stigma that surrounds mental health and prevents open discussion on the subject, the UK faces a significant mental health challenge at work…
“At a time when there is a national focus on productivity the inescapable conclusion is that it is massively in the interest of both employers and Government to prioritise and invest far more in improving mental health. The UK can ill-afford the productivity cost of this poor mental health.
“It could be argued that these costs are the “normal” cost of being alive and doing business. Our work suggests strongly that this is not the case.”
So, having studied recent literature, reports and recommendations at length, here are three key areas businesses, who don’t just want to talk the talk, can address to take action:
- Take it from the Top
Businesses are commercial entities, I get it. Time and money are precious resources that need to be allocated carefully. But even with the few stats included in this short article there is enough to start to build a business case to present to the board, and without much digging, you can find further evidence of the importance of taking action:
- The number of claims related to disability discrimination increased by 99% over five years
- The number of disability discrimination claims brought before employment tribunals rose 37% in 2018
- The average award for a disability discrimination award is £30, 698
(And that’s not to mention the numerous case studies, from Transport for London to University of Surrey, that demonstrate the impact commitment and focus can have on absence, employee engagement and productivity.)
In order to shift perception, change cultures, and make a real difference that impacts individuals as well as businesses, improving mental health and employee wellbeing needs to be part of the strategy. If it helps, wrap it up in ‘Equality, Diversity & Inclusion’, but you need buy in from the top, a clear plan and champions to drive it forward.
2. Invest and Integrate
There is a clear call across all literature for businesses to implement training. First and foremost, managers need to know how to spot the signs of someone struggling, and know what to do. But it needs to go beyond Mental Health First Aiders and understanding legislation:
- Make policies and procedures practical, accessible and understood by all, and ensure everyone understands what reasonable adjustments can be provided to remove the barriers faced by staff with mental health issues
- Make training such as Mental Health Awareness, Resilience, Stress Management, Time Management, Inclusive Leadership, Having Difficult Conversations and Mindfulness ‘need to haves’ not just ‘nice to haves’
- Thread Mental Health and Wellbeing threaded through all training, particularly Management & Leadership programmes and Diversity & Inclusion initiatives
- Equip managers with toolkits of conversation starters and awareness sessions to use with their teams to keep wellbeing on the agenda and help normalise conversations about mental health
- Focus on practical ways to change the culture of, for example, people eating at their desks and not taking breaks, or working during annual leave and picking up emails at any time of the day or night
- Then start to include mental health and wellbeing objectives in the performance management process. How can you support and reward staff or teams for excelling in their roles and smashing targets, whilst maintaining a good work-life balance?
3. It’s Not Enough to Guess
Unfortunately, rolling out a token e-learning course, putting Table Football in a recreational space and giving everyone their birthday off doesn’t necessarily mean you have employee wellbeing sorted and mental health on a level playing field with physical health.
Any organisation, no matter what size, can and should gather intel on how their employees feel; levels of engagement and happiness, anonymous feedback on what works and what doesn’t and elements of the company culture that don’t support wellbeing. Neither is it difficult to gather both quantitative and qualitative data on absence and retention.
Understanding where you are as a business – where you really are – enables you to plan and prioritise actionable objectives.
Some are calling for the government to put pressure on businesses to increase transparency and accountability; to mandate organisations into taking this more seriously, as we have with the gender pay gap. However, it shouldn’t need coercion to get businesses to step up. Spending just £1 on training to get £10 return by reducing the cost of absence, presenteeism and temporary staff should be encouragement enough. (Never mind the moral obligation we have as employers to look after our people.)