Mental Health Awareness Week: Calling on employers to cease ‘Ostrich’ approach to Mental Health at work

In Mental Health Awareness Week, I am struck by how easy many employers find it to simply act like ostriches around mental health at work. Many research statistics over the years have highlighted that mental ill-health is not unusual in any way. We all ‘have’ mental health, and very many of us will have adverse symptoms at some stage in our lives, or have friends, family members or work colleagues who feel unwell.

Recent years have seen stark statistics, published by numerous organisations, which clearly connect the issue of mental health and work:

The “Improving Lives” Government publication noted that one in five people experience a common mental health condition at some point, that one in two of people with mental health issues are on long term benefits, and that the employment rate for those with mental health disabilities is less than half that of those without them.

The Stevenson / Farmer “Thriving at Work Review” suggested that the cost to employers is between £33bn and £42bn a year. A significant proportion of the impact of mental health symptoms comes from those struggling in work, not just those who are unable to work or take time off sick.

Business in the Community’s “Mental Health at Work” report calculated that £8 billion is lost just through sickness absence from mental health issues – and another £8 billion of extra costs are incurred to replace staff lost as a result.

The Mental Health Foundation estimates 70 million working days are lost each year in the UK due to mental health problems in the UK.

I suspect this last statistic is an under-estimate. A pre-existing or concurrent mental health condition can often dictate whether someone experiencing a physical illness can cope at work or not, and thus influence whether they take time off work.

Talking mental health at work should be considered safe – but it isn’t

I was asked to comment last year on the Business in The Community’s annual YouGov survey. I was deeply shocked that the findings showed that despite the huge effort to make it safe to talk about mental illness, very few people would feel able to talk to their line manager about it. Even worse, that most would not trust their employer to make changes to accommodate their needs.

We know those with mental health challenges can find it hard to talk and express their needs – and that it has many complexities. This year’s theme for Mental Health Awareness Week centres on body image. This is important because low self-esteem contributes to the reluctance to share and discuss the practical things that can help support good mental well-being. It is yet another facet that employers must recognise and start to manage better.

After decades working with managers in organisations of all sizes, I know many do not find it easy to open the conversation. They worry that the simple question, “are you OK?”, will open a Pandora’s box of issues that they may not be able to cope with, and that makes them extremely nervous.

Creating effective conversation around mental health at work

Empactis recognises the complexity of mental health issues and recognises that it is a fundamental, essential consideration within the wider employee health mix. It is very keen to support its users and customers, who can use its platform to improve engagement around all aspects of employee health, to help reduce the burden around mental health for individuals and their employers.

Providing opportunity for those conversations can be crucial and be of high value to employees and employers. Whilst that human contact and support is important, technology has a great opportunity to make such more effective.

At its simplest the Empactis approach helps managers understand when timely intervention is right. It helps employers understand what is available, to enable signposting and offers of support. It also helps identify when managers or workers are struggling or failing with effective contact and conversation.

In 2009, when working on the independent review of NHS staff Health and Wellbeing, I spent much time with dedicated NHS staff. We received thousands of contributions to focus groups and survey tools as part of the diagnostic work. I was struck then, and I believe that unfortunately it is still true today, that more than half of the workers we heard from felt that their manager didn’t care (or perhaps lacked the time to care) that their health was essential to their job. This echoes the findings of BITC in 2017, which found that just 58% of employees believed their managers cared about their well-being.

Time for employers to take stock and take action on mental health

Mental Health Awareness Week is a time for employers to reflect and take stock of whether they do enough to recognise, respect and support mental health in the workplace.

It is a great time to tell managers that can be a significant thing simply to ask their employees “are you OK?” and to ensure that you have the knowledge, systems and tools in place to respond to what emerges.

The benefits are there for all. Getting smarter about mental health will help employers to support and build better relationships with their staff, but absence can be positively impacted with fewer productivity impacts. When staff feel supported in all regards at work, they and their employers can gain all the health benefits (physical, mental and social) that good work brings.

Mental health resources for employers

I have been pleased over the last few years to contribute to development, review and sharing of some excellent free resources, which were commissioned by Public Health England and developed by Business in the Community to deliver support across a range of mental and physical health conditions.

Download the Mental Health Employer’s Toolkit to discover practical, reliable and authoritative advice to help employers and their employees.