The average person will spend 90,000 hours at work over their lifetime. So, on World Mental Health Day (October 10), it is important to think about what employers can do to help support employees with their mental wellbeing.
The issue is a big one. It is estimated that one in three of the UK workforce have been formally diagnosed with a mental health condition at some point in their lifetime, most commonly depression or general anxiety. Six per cent of employees have been living with a formally diagnosed condition for more than ten years. Mental ill health is now the primary cause of long-term sickness absence for over one in five (22%) of UK organisations.
Importance of training
And it seems as though not all organisations are keeping up. Research from the CIPD (the professional body for HR and people development) found that less than one in three organisations (32%) train line managers to support staff with poor mental health. Meanwhile a Mind survey of over 44,000 employees also found that only two in five (42%) felt their manager would be able to spot the signs they were struggling with mental ill health.
Throughout my career as an employment lawyer, and in my current role as head of HRExpress at Stephens Scown, I’ve seen a steady increase in the number of enquiries about this issue. However, with the right support, it is possible for many people with mental ill health to continue to work and to play a real and valuable part in an organisation.
In addition to the human interest in providing a supportive workplace, there is a commercial driver too. Research by Deloitte has shown that for every £1 invested in mental health initiatives by an organisation, they will receive a return of between £1.50 and £9, with an average of a £4 return.
So, what should an employer do to promote mental wellbeing at work? For me there are three key areas: developing the right culture, putting measures in place to prevent mental ill health and intervening when colleagues are struggling.
Getting the culture right
The first step is perhaps the hardest – getting the culture right. Although it is becoming more socially acceptable to talk about mental ill health, there is still a long way to go to remove the stigma completely. There are many things an employer can do to create a culture where people are willing to talk about mental health. This can include introducing mental health first aiders, support groups or a buddy system.
It is not enough to put up a poster; employers must walk the walk, have support from their leadership and find a solution that works best for them.
The second step employers should think about is prevention. A useful tool is the ‘five ways to wellbeing’ produced by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) on behalf of Foresight. These are small steps people can take to improve their mental wellbeing and there are many ways that employers can facilitate these at work.
This includes helping your people to feel connected. At Stephens Scown, a simple thing we did was to introduce an office choir and lunch time clubs. It is also important to help people to be active during the working day, especially in sedentary office jobs. Encouraging colleagues to take their full breaks and get outside for a walk, or even have walking meetings instead of sitting around the board room table can pay dividends. Giving colleagues an opportunity to learn and volunteer in their communities can also be very beneficial for their mental health.
With the right culture and measures to try to prevent mental ill health, the final step is for employers to intervene if someone is suffering from mental ill health. Managers need to be alive to the signs and think about the common symptoms that may become obvious at work. This includes increases in unexplained absence or sick leave, poor performance and timekeeping, difficulty with making decisions, lack of energy, becoming uncommunicative or moody and other unexplained changes.
Having spotted the signs, it is important to speak to your colleague. It is helpful for managers to be self-aware and recognise that certain management styles can be a cause of stress or anxiety. Starting this kind of conversation can be challenging for managers, and training is useful. They need to be prepared to ask “are you ok?” and be ready for the answer to be “no”.
It may be necessary to share your colleague’s situation with others in order to put the best support in place. It is key to think about who else in the business needs to be ‘in the know’, whilst always remembering your duties of confidentiality and any relevant data protection issues.
While some people’s recovery will require time off, mental ill health does not automatically mean that someone has be off sick for an extended period or never return to their full capacity. It may be possible to make short-term adjustments to the type of work they are doing, or change their working hours which could help keep them in work.
With so many people likely to be affected by mental ill health at some time in their life, it is essential that businesses are geared up to support them. Though any absence, particularly that flowing from mental ill health, can be damaging for a business and potentially difficult and costly to manage, it is nevertheless worth giving that time and investment to a valued employee so that they can continue to contribute to the life and success of your business.
Ellie Hibberd is a partner and head of HRExpress at Stephens Scown. The team offers HR and employment law support and solutions to small and medium sized organisations, helping them to develop an engaged, effective and productive workforce. For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.stephens-scown.co.uk