In a time where employee wellbeing is seemingly placed at the heart of a wide range of business decisions, from office layout to opting for ergonomic furniture and even exercise desks, it may come as a shock to discover that the British workforce is far from a clean bill of health when it comes to mental wellbeing.
Mental Health by Numbers
According to new research by charity Business in the Community (BiTC), an overwhelming 77% of British workers report they have experienced a mental health issue, with 62% of those with mental ill health believing that work was a contributing factor.
While improving and maintaining employees’ physical wellbeing has risen to the top of many employers’ agendas, with gym memberships, cycle to work schemes and access to free fruit becoming common employee benefits, this research reveals that employees’ mental wellbeing is still an issue that is yet to be addressed. This argument is evidenced in BiTC’s further finding that, despite line managers being responsible for managing the day-to-day mental health of employees, only 10% had received training for managing and supporting people with mental health problems.
Perhaps more shockingly, the majority of managers (63%) surveyed by BiTC said they felt obliged to put the interests of their organisation before the wellbeing of team members, revealing the severity of the disparity between many organisations’ ideals and the reality facing employees struggling with mental ill health.
In addition to the ethical cost, those employers reluctant to face the issue of mental ill health in the workplace risk significant financial loss. According to the Office of National Statistics, mental health problems accounted for 127 million hours of work absence last year. Worryingly, this latest figure shows a 25% increase on 2014.
Absenteeism isn’t the only issue. The Centre for Mental Health has calculated that presenteeism, the practice of staying at work beyond your normal working hours, typically due to job insecurity, cost the UK economy a whopping £15.1 billion a year. This eye-watering sum combined with rising pressure on employees amid fear of an economic downturn reveals the issue of mental health in the workplace is set to get bigger.
Sterilising the Stigma
While there’s no doubting the need for businesses to invest in both mental and physical wellbeing, mental health illness is still widely viewed as a taboo, creating barriers for both employers and employees and making it difficult for effective mental wellbeing procedures to be bought into effect. Communication is one of the biggest stumbling blocks according to the BiTC report. Of the 20,000 people surveyed, 49% would not discuss mental health problems with their manager. For employees, the threat of facing discrimination or job insecurity as a result of disclosing any mental health issues at work leaves many feeling they have no option other than to suffer in silence. Similarly, many managers are hesitant to broach the topic of mental health, concerned that they may exacerbate an issue or even face legal consequences. With this in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising the BiTC found that over half of the employees surveyed reported that no significant action was taken after they alerted their manager to their struggle with mental health problems.
Ensuring managers are adequately trained to support employees struggling with mental health problems is essential; however, before businesses can reach this stage, steps must be taken to deconstruct the stigma attached to mental illness and destroy company cultures that promote practices which have damaging effects on mental wellbeing. Mental Health First Aid England CEO Poppy Jaman believes that the longer the silence around mental health continues, the longer the stigma will remain. She explains: “Despite all the good work that’s being done to normalise conversations around mental health, stigma does still exist, which makes it hard for people to feel they can talk openly about their mental wellbeing, particularly in the workplace. It’s vital that more is done to encourage discussions about mental health between colleagues and also between staff and their managers”.
Despite the bleak statistics, certain big-name brands, including Channel 4, Marks & Spencer & Unilever, have taken note of the numbers and are reviewing their support and management of mental health illness in the workplace. Professional services firm EY offers a particularly shining example – the company’s ‘Thinking Differently’ initiative, which has helped the company gain wide recognition for their progressive approach to supporting mental wellbeing, equips key members of staff with mental health first aid training so they are able to offer advice and support colleagues facing mental health issues. In addition, the company has also developed a psychological care pathway and runs an informal buddy initiative to create a support network for employees affected by mental health conditions.
Steve Wilkinson, EY’s UK & Ireland Managing Partner for client service, and Partner Sponsor of Health EY said: “In the same way that anyone can get a cold or flu, anyone can be affected by a mental health issue. We wanted mental and physical health to hold equal weight in our wellbeing programme – Health EY”. The recognition of mental ill health as a wide scale issue rather than an anomaly is essential if businesses are to make any impact on improving employee wellbeing.
While EY offers an example in terms of supporting people with current mental health issues, the lack of recognition of the need to implement prevention measures as well as supporting staff with mental health problems remains an issue. Last year, the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that 40% of UK organisations were making no effort to address stress in the workplace despite stress being widely considered as a contributing factor to mental ill health.
Louise Aston, wellbeing director at Business in the Community, emphasises the need for employers to focus on more than supporting employees with mental illness, arguing the need to proactively create a company culture that attempts to prevent employees from undertaking working practices that are damaging to their mental wellbeing: “Employers must accept the scale of mental ill health in the workplace and start taking a preventative approach now. This means getting the work culture right in the first place so they promote good work and work-life balance […] Employees must feel that the workplace is supportive of, rather than detrimental to, their mental health”.
With mental health affecting one in six people, there’s no doubting the numbers – mental illness is a workplace problem that needs to be addressed. If employers have a duty of care to protect our bodies from workplace injury, then this duty should be extended to protect our minds from cultures that fuel anxiety and stress.
While the root causes of mental ill health are as varied as the ways in which different conditions affect individuals, employers cannot ignore the numbers and it’s a problem that’s only going to grow unless more is done to open up communication channels, ensure adequate support training and recognise that the duty of care employers have to protect our bodies at work covers our minds too.