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Bosses cannot afford to ignore mental health

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Most people do not enjoy talking openly about mental health issues, but the £26bn economic cost of mental health means that business leaders cannot afford to ignore the problem. 

On this very topic, last week Labour Party leader Ed Miliband highlighted the issue: “People can be scared to tell their boss. Intimated by the culture that still surrounds mental illness. Scared into silence.”

One in six workers experience depression, anxiety or stress in their lifetime. But when Real Business asked business leaders whether they would be comfortable commenting on mental health issues in the workplace, none could. Are businesses completely failing to recognise their employees’ mental health, sweeping the problems under the carpet?

“We need to talk”

Rather than there being any malicious reasons for not talking about mental health, it is far more likely that bosses simply don’t know to do so.

First off, business leaders need to realise that this isn’t just a social problem, but also an economic one: mental health costs the UK economy £26bn a year, according to leading mental health charity, Mind. Working days lost due to mental illness alone amount to 70m, costing businesses £2.4bn. 

World Health Organisation (WHO) research says that mental suffering has increased in modern times due to unequal societies, a culture of long working hours and an erosion of social bonds. By 2030, the WHO predicts that mental health will be the leading cause for disease.

Unfortunately our “Britishness” doesn’t help, either. Brits are traditionally the silent type when it comes to awkward subjects – our culture lacks the language and understanding to tackle mental health head on. Mental illness, hospitalisation or simply meeting a counsellor are unwelcome conversation topics.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that most employees who suffer from mental illness are simply alienated by their colleagues, who don’t know how to ask them if they are “okay” or feeling better. Unlike a physical ailment, where individuals get swamped by get-well cards and gifts, mental health sufferers are shunned.

What can you do?

What can employers do to help? Jenny Leeser, clinical director of occupational health at Bupa, suggests that small changes can have a big effect: “Nobody expects bosses to solve all of a person’s issues, but there may be adjustments that really help, such as altering hours on a temporary basis. All companies have a health and safety policy, so why not a stress and mental health policy too?”

Research by Bupa shows that many small business owners say that they wouldn’t be able to recognise mental illness among their staff; and “would rather discuss the weather than employees’ mental health”. 

This is shockingly true: 55 per cent of owners regularly discuss the weather employees, in comparison to 24 per cent that discuss health issues. 

One in three bosses said this was because they believed it was “none of their business” to get involved in employees personal issues, but this is not the case, says Emma Mamo, Mind’s policy and campaigns manager:

“Employers should adopt a three-pronged strategy that promotes wellbeing for all staff, tackles the causes of work-related mental ill health and supports staff who are experiencing mental health problems”, she explains. 

What can business leaders to do to manage mental health in the workplace more effectively? Here are some of Mind’s top-line recommendations.

  • Monthly catch ups can promote staff wellbeing, giving staff the space to discuss issues they are facing and collaborating to develop plans to minimise and tackle these;
  • Implementing initiatives such as flexible working hours and encouraging staff social events can improve work-life balance and relationships between employees;
  • An anonymous staff survey can help identify the causes of poor mental health at work. On the basis of this information, changes can be implemented;
  • When issues have been raised, organisations should focus on the person rather than the problem and work with them to identify what adjustments, temporary or permanent, need to be made to their working conditions; and
  • Training for senior management and staff in general can help everyone understand how best to support those experiencing stress and other mental health problems.

If your employees’ health is not a strong enough incentive to implement changes in your business, know that there is also a strong business case. 

A happier, healthier work environment creates a more productive, happier and stable workforce. In turn, this can save a SMEs around £300 per employee.

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