Why should employers be concerned about mental health?

This article has been supplied by Bupa.

Mental illness is a serious problem for businesses and for the economy, with one in six employees dealing with a condition such as stress, anxiety or depression in any one year. All too often, the first the employer knows about it is when the employee has to take time off work. This can have a huge impact on the team and the wider organisation.

Patrick Watt-Bupa-2014

Even when an employee remains in work, presenteeism can be a problem. Stress clouds people’s thinking, impairs judgement and inhibits productivity.

But mental health is not just about mental illness. Good mental health presents a fantastic opportunity for businesses in terms of productivity and engagement. A Warwick University study found that people in a happy state of mind are 12% more productive. In knowledge-based industries, such as financial and professional services, human capital is an organisation’s greatest asset.

If the mind is not functioning at its best, it is like operating with broken equipment. But if employees are fully engaged and resilient, then the sky is the limit. Creating an environment where talent can thrive makes good business sense, and early adopters of this are already reaping the benefits in employee retention and productivity. Maintaining mental health at work is a win-win for everyone.

What can employers do to address the problem?

Employers have a responsibility to eliminate practices or cultural habits within their organisation that cause staff to be stressed or unhappy. But stress is never going to just vanish.

Early intervention is the key to stopping mental health conditions spiralling out of control. Absence should not be the trigger for an employee to seek help. An employer would not expect a physical condition like a back or knee problem to get better on its own; it would offer physiotherapy or other treatment. The same should be the case with mental illness. Providing high-quality treatment at an early stage is very effective, but how can employers offer support early if employees do not come forward?

The solution is to try to remove any barriers preventing employees from seeking help. Providing a confidential service is critical, as is making treatment easy to access. For instance, allowing self-referral can be effective in enabling employees to get help at the earliest opportunity.

But the most important thing employers can do is promote a culture where people can discuss problems openly and seek help when they need it. Make it absolutely clear that any support is confidential and there will be no negative consequences on anyone’s career.

What else can organisations do to remove the stigma of mental illness?

From a societal perspective, there have been significant changes to perceptions of mental health. Politicians, footballers and celebrities have stood up and talked about it, but there has been much less progress in the business world. It is the elephant in the boardroom. The irony is that business has most to gain from tackling mental health.

Failing to recognise the dangers of stress is the biggest danger. Breaking down the culture of silence around mental health should be a priority, and leaders must front this change for it to work.

Employees must feel that in being open about their struggles, they will be supported and their honesty will not count against them.

Line managers should be encouraged to engage their staff in dialogue about stress. Managers must be trained to identify the symptoms and be able to signpost people to get the right help.

Many people do not realise that stress, depression and anxiety are mental illnesses and that help is available. Employee engagement campaigns can encourage staff to seek help when they need it, preventing these conditions developing into more serious mental or physical illnesses.  

A few high-profile cases in banking have drawn attention to the issue. What is happening in the City?

Stress appears to be endemic in City jobs. This culture of high pressure and long hours must be addressed, or businesses will see an exodus of talented individuals.

Regardless of job role, employees need to feel comfortable discussing stress openly, and should never be allowed to get to the stage where stress is a daily issue and causes them to take time off or resign. Stress must not be seen as a personal weakness.

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These cases are timely reminders of the need to put employees’ health first. Only when this is built into the lifeblood of an organisation will it have a happy, and healthy, workforce.

Patrick Watt is corporate director at Bupa