Mental Health in the Workplace

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Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Mental health in the workplace needs to be a top priority for any business today. What issues can this cause, and what should you be doing about it?

Article

A happy, healthy workforce is an essential part of any successful business. But ensuring this requires looking after both your employee's physical and mental wellbeing. While many companies have recognized the importance of physical wellness to the performance of their firm, and programs such as gym memberships and other initiatives to promote fitness are widespread, it's still the case that mental health is often overlooked or dismissed as being of lesser importance.

Part of this may be because there is still a great reluctance to discuss mental health, with issues such as stress and anxiety still considered taboo in many organizations. But this attitude could be covering up a huge problem in many firms, and if it's allowed to grow while hidden in the background, it will be too late to do anything about it once it starts impacting the business.

How common are workplace mental health issues?

Mental health issues are one of the most common problems within any workplace. In the UK, for example, one in four people will have a mental health problem at some point in their life, while in the US, 43.8 million people experience a mental illness in any given year.

Many of these issues can be traced back to the work environment. For instance, work-related stress is a major problem for many people, which can lead to related issues such as depression and anxiety, or exacerbate pre-existing conditions.

In fact, the Mental Health at Work 2018 survey, conducted in the UK by YouGov and Business in the Community, found 61% of employees have experienced mental health issues due to work, or where their job was a related factor. It's also an issue that may particularly affect female employees in full-time employment as they’re twice as likely to have a common mental health problem as full-time employed men (19.8% compared with 10.9%)

High-pressure jobs that relentlessly expect people to get results, unhelpful or overly-demanding managers that place unreasonable expectations on their staff and workplace bullying are some of the most common causes of stress, but whatever the cause, the impact on both employee's personal lives and the overall health of your business can be significant.

The impact of poor mental health on you and your employees

Poor mental health among your workforce is bad for both employees and the business. In the UK, figures from the Health and Safety Executive reveal 15.4 million working days were lost in 2017/18 due to stress, depression and anxiety, while around one in eight sick days can be attributed to mental health conditions.

The worst-affected sectors include education, social work activities and public administration. However, poor mental health can affect any workplace, and absenteeism is not the only issue caused by these problems. In many companies, a culture of 'presenteeism' - where people feel they have to come into work despite not feeling able to perform effectively - can also be a big problem, resulting in poor productivity and low morale, which also affects the bottom line.

However, taking steps to address this issue is one of the most cost-effective things firms can do to improve their performance and help build a happier workforce. In fact, providing better support for mental health in the workplace could help save businesses as much as $10.43 billion (£8 billion) a year.

For instance, one calculation found promoting wellbeing at work through steps such as risk-assessment questionnaires, seminars, workshops and web-based materials to provide advice will cost approximately $104 (£80) per employee per year. But for an initial investment of $52,030 (£40,000), a company with 500 employees can expect to see net savings of $452,300 (£347,722), due to reduced presenteeism and absenteeism.

Of course, while the financial and productivity impact of poor mental health shouldn’t be overlooked, the most damaging effects will always be on the health of your employees, and firms that gain a reputation for being unhappy, unhealthy places to work will also find themselves struggling to recruit and retain the best talent.

The key steps firms must take to promote mental health

It should be clear that the benefits of adopting a formal strategy towards mental health will far outweigh the costs, but what should an effective plan look like? The Mental Health at Work survey highlighted three key areas for employers to focus on:

  • Talking
  • Training
  • Taking action

Talking

You should aim to bring mental health into the open and abolish any remaining taboos or discomfort surrounding the issue. This is no easy task, but if firms want to be successful in normalizing mental health, it must become an integral part of their company culture.

This starts at the very top, and if senior management and executives talk openly about their experiences, other staff will also feel more comfortable discussing their own issues. Bosses will also certainly have a lot of insight to offer, as almost two-thirds of business leaders (64%) have suffered from mental health conditions.

Training

Mental health should be promoted right from the start of an employee's career, with induction materials detailing what help and support is available, and how people can go about getting this. Again, this is a key part of ensuring mental health is something people feel comfortable talking about.

Then, on a more ongoing basis, ensure line managers are empowered to improve their skills when it comes to spotting potential issues. Less than a quarter of line managers have received training in mental health, so changing this must be a top priority.

Taking action

While running training sessions and awareness courses is a good start, firms must go further and take a proactive approach with employee mental health. Don't wait for workers to come to you with issues - instead, always make mental health a part of the conversation, remind people regularly about the support on offer, and consider adding specialist services to engage with employees safely and confidentially, if necessary.

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