Thriving at Work – a report commissioned by Theresa May – highlights the impact of mental ill health in the workplace and calls on employers to address it. Authors Dennis Stevenson and Paul Farmer count the cost to employers of poor mental health – £17 billion to £26 billion a year due to ‘presenteeism’ (working when unwell and therefore less productively), with sickness absence and staff turnover costing £8 billion apiece.
This is in addition to lost output, costing the economy £37 billion to £52 billion, and reduced tax intake, NHS treatment costs and ill-health related welfare payments, costing government £25 billion.
Then there’s the human cost. Individuals with long-term mental health disorders are less likely to find work and an estimated 300,000 of them lose their jobs every year. And the problem’s growing. According to the Labour Force Survey the number of sick days taken because of mental health problems increased from 13 million in 2010 to 15.8 million in 2016.
Protecting employees’ mental health is part of employers’ duty of care. And it’s encouraging to see the more enlightened ones making support for employee mental health an integral part of their people management strategy. But for others the continuing stigma and prejudice associated with mental ill health do neither them nor their employees any favours.
For instance, we know from our own research that 69% of bosses don’t believe that suffering from stress, anxiety or depression is a serious enough reason for employees to be off work. No surprise then that Business in the Community’s (BITC) latest Mental Health at Work report found that only 13% of employees felt able to disclose a mental health issue to their line manager. More alarmingly, 15% of those who did were subjected to disciplinary procedures, demoted or dismissed. We’ve a long way to go to achieving Stevenson/Farmer’s ambition for employers throughout the UK to commit to managing mental health at work.
When it comes to managing mental health it’s important to remember employees are affected by a multitude of pressures and calls on their resources in both their private lives and working lives. And when these exceed their perceived ability to cope they can lead to stress, anxiety or depression. Thankfully there are solutions.
HR professionals can show their mettle by gaining senior management’s buy-in to challenging the stigma that surrounds mental health at work. HR should also play a leading role in creating a positive, supportive workplace culture – one where all employees understand the importance of good mental health. And where managers are properly trained and supported to identify and help employees affected by mental health issues. Authenticity and visibility are also important – for instance, senior managers talking openly about their own experiences. Creating such a workplace culture will help give employees confidence to speak up and talk about their mental health.
A good work/life balance is essential for wellbeing. It helps employees to be more resilient and less likely to succumb to stress. So encourage employees to work to their contracted hours. And also to make the most of their own time when they’re done for the day. Practise what you preach – if bosses make a point of leaving work ‘on time’ others will follow. If practicable, think about offering flexible working. Encourage employees to take regular breaks – and all of their holiday. HR is well placed to track this and use the information to prompt mangers to make sure their reports are taking time off to rest and recharge.
While HR professionals may feel it’s not their place to counsel employees on lifestyle choices such as diet and exercise, these can affect physical and mental health. Poor physical health can, for example, adversely affect mood, self-esteem, energy levels and resilience. Simple measures such as encouraging a healthy, balanced diet and regular physical activity can help to improve and maintain good physical and mental health. So try to ensure your canteens, vending machines and food delivery services offer healthy choices. And think about providing gym discounts, on-site bike racks, changing rooms and promoting lunchtime walking groups.
Confident, psychologically secure employees are an asset to any employer. By introducing measures such as these, HR leaders can go a long way to safeguarding the mental health of their workforce. So instead of asking ‘Are we doing enough to support the mental health of our workforce?’ it might be more rewarding to ask ‘What more can we do?’
Mark Winwood is director of psychological services at AXA PPP healthcare