· Features

HR must encourage open and honest dialogue about mental health

In 2011, mental health became the biggest single cause of staff absence in the UK. Despite this, not nearly enough has been done to minimise the significant impact mental ill-health has on both our employees and our businesses. Too many individuals still suffer in silence, feeling unable to discuss their condition because of social stigma.

As a profession, we must do more to encourage open and honest dialogues about mental health in the workplace. HR has a significant role in building a company’s understanding of mental health, and in earning the confidence of its workforce to feel comfortable disclosing conditions they have been diagnosed with.

The impact of mental health on the UK is startling. Last year the combined costs of staff absence, lost productivity, social benefits and healthcare was £70 billion, according to the OECD. Annually mental health absence costs UK businesses the equivalent of 70 million working days. The business case for better support is clear. 

The effects of mental health cannot only be viewed financially though.  There remains a misunderstanding of mental health issues in our workplaces, leading to social stigma for those who do reveal their diagnosis. BUPA recently found that 94% of organisations admit that mental health prejudice still exists in their company. The current culture of ignorance, stereotyping and discrimination of those with mental ill-health has forced too many staff into suffering in silence, with significant detriment to the individual as well as the business they work for.

So what has HR done to challenge this? Quite simply, not enough. In fact HR all too often seems to be supporting this culture of ignorance, with 25% of our profession describing those suffering from mental ill-health as ‘unreliable and weak’, according to The Work Foundation. There is also little evidence that we have provided workers with the resources they need to be able to identify staff who are exhibiting symptoms of mental ill health. Wellbeing strategies should focus on building staff resilience to help employees manage stressful periods, and on having accessible support structures for those who do need greater assistance. 

Any initiative, however, will be ineffective while people feel unable to speak about their condition, and it is here that HR must focus its attention.  Transparent cultures that encourage equitable treatment must be developed within our businesses. These should allow staff to discuss any problems without fear of negative consequences.  Most employees will identify if an organisation has this type of culture based on how the company manages its leaders’ mental health problems.

The recent example of Lloyds, where the chief executive was signed off from work for stress-related conditions, highlights this effectively. Rather than dismiss him or cover up his absence, Lloyds was open in discussing his illness, supported him in his recovery, and ensured his successful return to work.  This approach will transcend the firm, providing staff with the encouragement that mental health issues can be discussed, knowing they will receive support rather than stigma. 

For too long HR has remained silent on mental health issues in the workplace. The financial and social impact it can have on businesses and on individuals is immeasurable; as a profession we must do more to remove social stigma. There is a real opportunity for HR here, not just to better support our businesses, but millions of people across the UK.

Jabbar Sardar is director of human resources and organisational development at Cafcass