Mental health is now a boardroom issue

This article has been supplied by Bupa.

If you read nothing else, read this…

  • The stigma of mental illness is yet to be shaken off.
  • Employers need to take a more pragmatic approach to dealing with employees’ mental health needs.
  • Good mental health makes good business sense.

The mental health agenda has reached a tipping point.

Finally, enlightened organisations are starting to recognise the impact of mental illness on the performance of their staff and their business.

And with one in six employees experiencing anxiety, depression or stress at any one time, according to Mind’s Taking Care of Business report, published in 2011, it is not a moment too soon.

But many employers continue to bury their heads in the sand when it comes to mental health. A culture of silence pervades, with employees unable or afraid to get the help they need to return them to full health.

The stigma of mental illness is yet to be shaken off, with too many business leaders believing that an employee who has taken time off for stress can never again be a top performer.

But mental illness is indiscriminate and can affect any of us, unlike some physical conditions that can be linked to lifestyle.

Time for action

So what should employers be doing? First of all, it is time to accept that the business case has been made and it is now time for action. The approach to dealing with mental health needs to be much more pragmatic, and it must happen now.

There is a real need for much greater openness around the impact of mental illness at work. Organisations should accept that employees will become stressed and that support should be available when they need it, not just for conditions like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, but for common disorders such as stress, depression and anxiety.

Early intervention and access to confidential services are vital, just as they are with back pain. Even better if employees can refer themselves without needing to see a GP first. Staff must be reassured that they can access treatment in confidence, with as few obstacles as possible, and employers must create an open environment that encourages people to seek support without fear of discrimination.

Early warning signs

Identifying the early warning signs of mental illness is hugely important. Absence should not be the trigger; support should be offered as soon as the employee develops the condition, not just when they are signed off work.

Line managers play a critical role in this. They should be aware of behavioural changes in their team members, such as being over-emotional, highly sensitive or lacking attention or focus. Asking if someone is okay is an easy way to address the matter. Managers don’t need special training for this; they just need basic people skills.

Businesses should not only concern themselves with the cost of mental illness. The most progressive organisations are also recognising the opportunities and benefits of good mental health. Even in the City, bankers and lawyers can now be seen attending seminars on mindfulness and happiness.

Good mental health makes good business sense, especially in knowledge-based industries, where human capital is an organisation’s greatest asset.

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This is an agenda that will make us not just a happier nation, but a more successful nation. Mental health is a critical business issue. It’s time the agenda moved from HR to the boardroom.

Patrick Watt is corporate director at Bupa