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Making the case for addressing mental health at work – why it’s everybody’s business

4th August, 2019

Joscelyne Shaw




The findings of a major survey of more than 44,000 employees by Mind in 2018 revealed that poor mental health at work is widespread, with half (48 per cent) of all people surveyed saying they have experienced a mental health problem in their current job.


This research also found that only half of those who had experienced poor mental health had talked to their employer about it, suggesting that as many as one in four UK workers is struggling in silence.


Businesses are keen to demonstrate the value that they can bring to society, but to some extent they are still trying to understand their role in what some consider is a complex public health issue.


So, whilst dealing with a myriad of business issues and remaining true to their priorities, it can become doubly challenging to unravel and assess what options are available to best address this.


Therefore, if business is to be persuaded to be engaged with mental health, it needs to have clarity as well as confidence in what is being delivered.


Why is poor mental health an issue for all businesses?

Findings from recent reports have shown that it is evident, mental ill-health is a widespread issue costing UK businesses significant tangible amounts every year.

According to the Health and Safety Executive, forty-four per cent of work-related ill health cases were attributed to stress, depression or anxiety, which amounted to 15.4 million working days lost in 2017/18. The British Safety Council report Not Just Free Fruit, released in 2018, found that

“…the most noteworthy and worrying factor is the ongoing rise of mental health issues, including stress, depression, anxiety and other psychological and psychiatric disorders. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reports an increase in the proportion of younger workers aged 25 to 34, who attribute their sickness absence to mental health conditions, rising from 7.2% in 2009 to 9.6% in 2017.”[1]

Further evidence as to the impact was provided in the Centre for Mental Health report published in 2017 that estimated the overall cost of not addressing mental health problems to UK employers to almost £35 billion, or £1,300 per employee.

For a business considering their bottom line, regardless of size, this can quickly add up.


We all need to know where to turn to when we need to talk to someone – at an individual level as well as a business

A SHEQ Manager at a demolition contractor and a Mates in Mind Supporter said: “I have worked in the demolition industry since I was fifteen years old; I’m now forty and have both experienced and seen poor mental health in many degrees. In my case, that took me to the point of considering suicide. What Mates in Mind is doing is so important, as I have seen the effects poor mental health can have first hand, it is so reassuring to see what can be done if you strive to remove the stigma and look to better support your people.”


An individual’s mental health can be influenced and impacted by workplace pressures and working conditions – from mounting responsibilities and tight deadlines to inter-workplace relations and managerial support. Therefore, it can have an influence on our overall mental health - both positively as well as negatively.


Presenteeism, the presence of people who are ill at work, which has been difficult to quantify, is now acknowledged as a key factor for businesses; and therefore, demands that employers consider potential risk factors and not only sickness absence or presenteeism if they are to better understand the issue and support their workforce, e.g. bullying, unrealistic time pressures or financial concerns.


With many small and medium-sized businesses, often involving family and friends, it’s not just the case of bottom line, it’s also about knowing the impact this issue has on individuals and the people dependent on them.


However, in difficult and unfamiliar situations, it can sometimes be hard for a manager to know where to start or what to do.  


So, what is to be done?

Certainly, it is becoming clear with growing evidence of the link between wellbeing – which includes mental health – and productivity, that worker wellbeing, and therefore mental wellbeing, simply cannot be ignored or even relegated to the ‘nice to do’ list.


For one leading, family-run civil engineering and infrastructure services contractor employing more than 900 staff, mental health was regarded as an important issue to address. This was because ensuring the health and safety of its workforce has always been one of their principal considerations.


Increasingly, they identified how achieving this aim required a more fundamental appreciation of the link between mental health, site safety and operational effectiveness.


More than this, however, the contractor felt that pursuing the goal of a more mentally healthy workplace was one of the truest ways of showing that as a company it genuinely cared for and valued its people.


There are practical ways in which employers can help colleagues within the working environment. A starting point is that workers need to acknowledge and look after their own mental health.


Increasing awareness and understanding is a key first step in a journey towards a culture of prevention.


In respect of this, a Health and Safety Manager in an SME Contractor shared his experience in relation to working with Mates in Mind and delivering our Start the Conversation Awareness course:


For years we have been ticking boxes and reaching targets, relating to incidents, near miss/hazard reports etc. but when I deliver the ‘awareness’ message I have engagement which is often missing form a regular Tool Box Talks. Many of the teams freely open up with stories they or others close to them have experienced. They have often pulled me to one side or messaged me after the talks and sincerely thanked me for putting some light on this subject. Although this is obviously not the reason for me promoting the vital message, it’s very humbling to hear.


Importantly running alongside this is the sense too that managers should not be fearful of broaching the subject.


If the culture is to change in a workplace, managers need much more information and guidance on how to spot the signs of illness than they currently appear to be receiving. This guidance needs to help them to initiate a conversation with a worker and the tools to continue the conversation in an appropriate way moving forward.


As another large contractor commented in relation to their learning with Mates in Mind: “We have improved our tracking industry data regarding mental ill health and collating working time lost within our business. But it’s also about making sure people aren’t phoning in and just saying they are sick, but letting their manager know if they are stressed and feeling unable to cope.”


While employers cannot cure psychological or psychiatric conditions – in the same way as they cannot cure cancer or a broken leg – it is vital that mental ill-health is accepted as the debilitating sickness it can be.


In certain situations, the only course of action might be referral to occupational health, reduced hours or a period of leave.


Consistent messaging is another key area that we see as being critical to supporting the change.


Changes in culture will only come about if we begin with changing the way we think and talk about mental health.


Through inclusive and consistent communication, engagement can be facilitated that allows for learning and can support an environment in which people feel that they can thrive. Because the nature of businesses can be geographically spread, operating with staff across diverse work settings and involving a mix of direct staff and contractors, can require coordination.


But there are a number of tools available to allow employers to join up the messaging.


Examples of ways in which we’ve seen businesses engage can include single site initiatives, such as curry and chat afternoons, stress awareness drop-in sessions, lunch ’n learns or walking groups amongst others; or company-wide campaigns, such as wellbeing roadshows, stand-downs or webinars.


An important element to remember in undertaking any such initiatives is to get feedback and consider ways in which it can be improved and demonstrate ways in which the initiative can be seen as valuable.  


Certainly, what Mates in Mind Supporter organisations have fed back as a key benefit of working alongside us has been significant engagement from staff across a business that has come about – reporting that it has facilitated people talking and looking out for one another.


And this has also yielded direct benefits to organisations, such as smoother delivery, better problem solving, a general atmosphere of positivity and improved levels of job satisfaction being reported.


It is clear that the impact of addressing mental health in the workplace on individuals can not be underestimated and can be quite immediate; and equally the value to business can be as powerful. To some extent this value is still being understood and quantified.


British Safety Council, 2018, Not just free fruit: Wellbeing at work, 2018, [https://www.britsafe.org/campaigns-policy/not-just-free-fruit-wellbeing-at-work/]

Joscelyne Shaw

Joscelyne Shaw is Director of Strategy, Mates in Mind Regardless of where your organisation is in its mental health journey, Mates in Mind can provide the insight to help both organisations and individuals to understand how, when and where they can get support. We help businesses to structure this with a clear plan supported by skills and awareness training, communication tools as well as advice and guidance. If you would like to find out more about how Mates in Mind can support your organisation and improve your workplace’s mental health, please contact a member of the team directly or visit our website www.matesinmind.org

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