Would you be happy to discuss your mental health with your boss?
Or if you are responsible for staff, would they approach you to talk about their mental health issues?
A report by Business in the Community (BITC) found that only 11% of those surveyed would be happy to disclose they were suffering a mental illness to their line manager. Research by charity Time to Change found that employees would be happier discussing almost anything – sex, money, religion or love – than mental health with their manager at work.
So while high profile campaigns – such as the Heads Together initiative spearheaded by the younger royals – have helped remove the stigma of talking about mental health at work, there is still a long way to go.
Why does it matter?
The bottom line is that mental health doesn’t only affect those with a condition – it affects their employers too. A report by PwC found that a third of employees have a health and wellbeing issue – and anxiety, stress and depression topped the list.
The government- commissioned Thriving at Work review last year found that 300,000 workers in the UK leave their jobs due to poor mental health.
Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at mental health charity Mind says: “Poor mental health costs the UK economy up to £99 billion every year with up to £42 billion as a direct cost to employers. We know that there’s a huge human cost related to mental health, but figures from the Thriving at Work review show the business case for addressing mental health in the workplace with proactive employers”.
But Mamo points out: “Unfortunately, we still hear from people who are demoted or even pushed out of their jobs upon disclosing their personal experience which is hugely disappointing. Employer attitudes can be a huge barrier to people with mental health problems re-entering the workplace”.
The business case
There are employers who make it their business to ensure their employees’ good mental health. Dr Shaun Davis, Royal Mail’s Global Director of Safety, Health, Wellbeing and Sustainability is in charge of the Feeling First Class programme.
Under the programme, line managers at Royal Mail are trained as mental health first aiders. Dr Davis explains: “The programme has helped make people more comfortable talking about their mental health. They know they can share their concerns with their line manager without fear of reprisal”.
It’s a help when celebrities and business people talk about their own mental health issues. Louise Aston, BITC’s Wellbeing Campaign Director notes: “When Antonio Horta Osorio, the chief executive of Lloyds Banking Group, spoke out about his mental health that was massively significant. He was suffering from anxiety, which was the underlying cause of his sleep deprivation, and took time off work to recover – which he did returning to his role successfully heading up the bank. That was what was so important: he showed there is a way back and with the right support, people can recover from mental ill health”.
What’s on offer?
Five years ago, Thames Water started its Water Wellbeing Week – covering mental and physical health – which has now been extended across many of the water industry organisations. Karl Simons, head of health, safety, security and wellbeing at Thames says: “Before we started this programme, conversations about mental health didn’t happen”.
Thames Water now has almost 150 mental first aiders across its businesses. Simons adds: “Absence from work with stress or other work-related mental health issues are down 80% since 2013. Our people know they can have a conversation without fear of reprisal: and they know they can get help through work if they need it”.
A way to go?
Despite the progress, more is needed. Mind’s research found that four in five workers surveyed said problems at work contributed to their poor mental health. The BITC found that of employees who had discussed their mental health at work, 15% said their disclosure meant they faced dismissal, demotion or disciplinary action.
Mamo says: “It’s in employers’ interests to take steps to support the mental health of their staff. Those that do will find they are rewarded in terms of more productive, happy staff who are less likely to need time off sick and less likely to move to another employer”.
For employees, there are coping strategies, says BITC’s Aston – and it’s important that line managers are trained to recognise the early warning signs and are able to sign post colleagues to appropriate support.
“There is no such thing as good stress: that is a fact” she says. Employers too should be minded that under the Equality Act, they must make reasonable adjustments for employees with disabilities: and that includes mental health.
Charlotte Beugge spent more than 20 years as the deputy personal finance editor on The Daily Telegraph and then The Daily Mail. A freelancer since 2010, her work has appeared in national newspapers, magazines and websites.