Andy Bell: How to integrate mental health support into a workplace strategy

This article is supplied by The Centre for Mental Health

Mental ill-health affects staff in every workplace, big and small, but it is too often swept under the carpet. 

Key points

  • Awareness of workplace mental health conditions is low, with¬†work often seen as a threat to our health and something to avoid for people with mental health problems.
  • But good work is beneficial for both mental and physical health.¬†
  • Supporting mental health at work is no longer an optional extra for good businesses.
Andy Bell

Yet by responding positively and being more open, businesses can get a more productive, loyal workforce and save a lot of money.

The cost of mental health conditions to UK workplaces is estimated to be at least £26bn, or £1,000 per employee per year. More than half the cost is due to presenteeism, whereby staff are at work, but are underperforming because of ill-health, while just under one-third is due to sickness absence, according to Mental Health at Work: Developing the business case, published by the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health in December 2007. 

Awareness of workplace mental health conditions in the UK is remarkably low, with most employers underestimating how common they are. Many organisations do not believe they even employ staff with mental health problems, or they fear that an employee with depression will be hard to manage or unreliable.

Work is mistaken as a threat to staff health

Too often, work is mistaken as a threat to an individual’s health and something to avoid if they have a mental health problem, with stress sometimes seen as an illness in itself.

Part of the problem is that staff with mental health conditions are often signed off sick by their doctor for fear that they cannot cope with work, and many never return to the workplace. And staff that do remain in work, but who are on sick leave, often lose touch with their organisation because colleagues do not know what to say to them and managers fear making the situation worse.

Only a quarter of employees with depression receive any treatment for it, which results in them staying ill for longer, at great cost to themselves and their employers. 

Yet it has been proved that good work is beneficial for both mental and physical health. For most employees with depression or anxiety, being in work helps them to recover, and even very simple steps can make the difference between staying at work and going off sick.

Encouragingly, a range of effective psychological therapies is now available to help staff to recover and return to work, and cognitive behavioural therapy is a popular workplace benefit offered by a number of employers, along with employee assistance programmes (EAPs). 

Start by acknowledging illnesses

Employers can begin by acknowledging that depression and anxiety are common conditions, and by encouraging staff to seek help when they become unwell.

Leadership from the top creates a more open culture, after which the role of line managers and supervisors is crucial. They need the knowledge, skill and confidence to respond sensitively and positively to staff with mental health conditions.

Workplace training is one means of building this capability in managers. An evaluation of our workplace training, for example, found that participants became more confident about identifying and supporting employees with depression and anxiety, both immediately after the training and, more importantly, eight months later.

Temporary adjustments can be difficult 

One of the most difficult areas for managers is understanding what discretion they have to make temporary adjustments to affected employees’ workstations, workloads and routines.

Many larger employers have EAPs or counselling providers to which they can point staff, and workplace policies that support a certain amount of managerial discretion. But encouraging affected staff to see their family doctor or look at reputable self-help resources may be the best that smaller employers can offer.

Of course, state-funded support can also help employees, but employers need to do more to help affected staff.

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Supporting mental health at work is no longer an optional extra for good business. More employers are now recognising that everyone benefits from acknowledging mental ill-health as a fact of life, promoting good mental health in the workplace and helping those who become unwell to recover.

Andy Bell is deputy chief executive at the Centre for Mental Health