James Malia

Championing mental health in the workplace

Author: James Malia, Director of Employee Benefits at Sodexo Engage, specialists in employee and consumer engagement

2017 – the year that government, businesses and the public blew the lid off the scale of mental health problems facing the UK. Drawing together the link between mental health awareness and the working world is the government’s Thriving at Work report. The short story: the UK has a problem and we can’t just depend on government to fix it.

The problem

The report acknowledges that there are more people in work with mental health conditions than ever before. But, it’s important to remember that we’re increasing our awareness and diagnoses of ‘poor’ mental health every day, so perhaps this could just mean that staff are happier to disclose their personal challenges. Either way, it is a good step. That’s just a fraction of the story though. The report uncovered that every year, 300,000 employees with a mental health problem lose their job. For the business world, that is a talent pool of 300,000 people who have proved themselves, but have since been failed by the system.

The scale

But it’s not just those that have lost their jobs; it’s about those still in work too. 15% of people in employment have symptoms of an existing mental health condition. It costs employers between £33bn and £42bn every year in presenteeism, sickness absence and staff turnover. The fact that over half of this is due to presenteeism is another sign of how bad our general understating of poor mental health is in the working world.

The productivity conundrum

With the UK on a mission to understand and improve its national productivity levels, it makes sense to consider the impact that poor mental health may be having here. The report calculates that it costs the economy between £74bn and £99bn every single year. Addressing poor mental health is expensive though, so is there a return on investment that makes it worth it? Analysis from Deloitte looking at the benefits of investing in improving mental health show a consistently positive return. The academics say the same.

The way we think

One of the biggest bug bears of business professionals who understand mental health is that it is always preceded by the words “poor” or “bad”. In the corporate space, outside of an environment of empathetic business people or HR, it’s rare to hear “good” or “healthy” in the same sentence as mental health. This does nothing to help the stigma.

The Thriving at Work report has recognised this. It states mental health is something that “we all have” but we “fluctuate between thriving, struggling and being ill and possible off work”. With this new mindset and appropriate support, someone may well be suffering from a serious mental health problem, but they could just as equally be thriving at work. They are not mutually exclusive.

The action

As a start, the government is looking to set out “mental health core standards”. They are actions that any organisation can implement without too much upheaval and reasonably swiftly. These read as:

  • Produce, implement and communicate a mental health at work plan;
  • Develop mental health awareness among employees;
  • Encourage open conversations about mental health and the support available when employees are struggling;
  • Provide employees with good working conditions and ensure they have a healthy work life balance and opportunities for development;
  • Promote effective people management through line managers and supervisors;
  • Routinely monitor employee mental health and wellbeing

Longer term, the report calls on a move to increase transparency and accountability through internal and external reporting, demonstrate accountability, improve the disclosure process and ensure provision of tailored in-house mental health support and signposting to clinical help.

Is it enough?

The report’s Annex gives some suggested recommendations as to how these changes can be implemented, but to do it well and to get it right, someone in the business must drive this change and understand the goal. Reluctant managers or adopting these as a ‘tick box’ exercise will make little to no difference. It has to be done right and communicated well.

One of the biggest barriers to removing the mental health stigma in the workplace is the fear of talking about it. By taking these initial steps, encouraging a mental health champion and taking these issues as seriously as physical health concerns, everyone could start to see a serious, positive, shift.