Company wellbeing cannot just be an HR issue

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Recent statistics from the ONS revealed that occurrences of depression in the UK had doubled since the start of the year. Our Divided Together report found that one of the key places this is being felt is the workplace, with half of the UK workforce seeing its mental health decline in the last few months.

Mental health issues have reached such extreme levels that health professionals have started to predict that mental illness will be the next pandemic. The widespread nature of this problem shows that helping employees confront and deal with mental health challenges can no longer be confined to the HR team. It has to be on the company-wide agenda and demands support from across the board.

This high-level approach is needed not just because of the sheer percentages of employees affected – our Divided Together found that 72% of HR leaders say employees have reported at least one issue since lockdown – but because this is a widespread issue at all levels, including the boardroom and the CEO.

And finally, there is the impact it has on business performance.

During the recession of 2008, the number of businesses wanting to create wellbeing strategies started to increase. Why? Because these strategies, as a recent study from the London School of Economics found, can help improve retention, satisfaction, productivity, absenteeism and presenteeism.

Productivity speaks for itself and rising absences have a significant impact on this. As the average UK company with 150 employees spends £120,000 a year on absence, this is a big area for concern. When combined with presenteeism – a growing issue where employees are working but are not happy and struggling to concentrate – the cost to the UK economy is estimated to be £81 billion a year.

To put this into perspective, such a figure would more than adequately cover the estimated cost of furlough (£69bn) if it ran in full to the end of October.

Needing a tailored approach to wellbeing

Realisation is one thing, action is another. We know that a blanket approach to mental health is not the right thing to do. Unsurprisingly, there are different experiences of this issue for different people.

Furloughed workers and those with children have been hit the hardest. Some 56% of those on furlough had noticed a decline in mental health and two thirds (66%) of furloughed parents felt their mental health decline during lockdown.

A tailored approach to individual preferences and needs is required from entry level to c-suite.

What are employees calling for?

Many employees want to see more assistance and flexibility from their employers. A third (35%) of employees want long-term changes to the way they work, 29% are seeking mental health support in the workplace and 28% are actively demanding extra wellbeing support.

These are big issues for companies to have to deal with. But with mental health deteriorating and a strong link being made between business performance and wellbeing this is not just about defeating mental illness, it is about growing from it.

We know that coronavirus will change business, and these figures show that one of those areas has to be the mental wellbeing of the workforce. But they also show that mental wellbeing is an issue affecting all departments and levels of a business.

As such, it can no longer be placed at the door of HR alone. Mental wellbeing affects the bottom line, the strength and stability of teams, the morale of employees and the ability of the company to grow in the present and the future. This has to be an issue that all of the business addresses because if we cannot help our teams recover mentally, then we cannot help our businesses recover financially.

Vicky Walker is head of people at Westfield Health

Further reading:

Alastair Campbell: the importance of mental health during the coronavirus pandemic

Case study: Mental health support led by the individual

Top tips for establishing a mentally-healthy workplace

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