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Employers must prioritise workplace mental health

Last week gave UK employer’s two significant bits of news to chew on. Parliament moved a step closer to repealing laws that discriminate against company directors with mental health problems.

he Government also released statistics, which show that middle-aged men are now the group at highest risk of committing suicide in England, with job and money worries considered as significant contributors.

As we all know, modern working life can be extremely demanding and research shows that, at any one time, one in six workers in this country experience's stress, depression or anxiety. What's concerning though, is that many workers feel they can't admit to feeling stressed for fear of how their bosses will react.

Research by Mind, as part of its Taking Care of Business campaign, found that one in five workers said they risked being put first in line for redundancy if they disclosed their stress levels. Considering how common stress is, the taboos around discussing it simply aren't justified. In a modern workforce, paying attention to the mental wellbeing of employees, as well as their physical safety, should not be an afterthought but a matter of routine.

Businesses that ignore wellbeing are losing out. Employers who leave their workforce feeling unsupported are more likely to be affected by 'presenteeism', lower productivity and less committed staff. This is reflected in the financial cost of poor mental health, with British industry losing £1,035 per employee or £26 billion every year.

By contrast, businesses that invest in wellbeing actually save around £300 of these costs per employee and those FTSE 100 companies taking action and reporting on employee health issues outperformed their competitors financially by 10 % on average in 2009.

For organisations looking for ways to beat the recession, these are persuasive figures on investing in your most important resource - your staff. The world of work is changing, with employee engagement, flexible working, resilience and talent management now common currency. Positively managing mental health underpins these approaches and can reap rewards in terms of staff morale, productivity and loyalty.

But improving your staff's mental health doesn't have to involve hefty investment. Simple changes can improve staff wellbeing, such as making sure staff take a lunch break or get the chance to talk to managers. Equally, fostering an environment in which it's alright to talk about stress means that problems can be tackled before they start affecting your business.

We are at a watershed moment in pulling down the taboos around mental health, but there is still a way to go. The recent figures around middle-aged men and suicide show we simply cannot afford to ignore mental health any longer. It's vital, therefore, for employers to prioritise supporting their staff's mental wellbeing.

Together we need to create open workplaces where mental health is discussed without discrimination, where we treat mental health with as much importance as physical health, and where we introduce policies that promote wellbeing, tackle the causes of work-related mental health problems and support staff who are experiencing mental health problems.

Further information and advice on workplace mental health for employers and employees can be found on Mind's website  http://www.mind.org.uk/employment

Paul Farmer (pictured) is chief executive of Mind