The 14th-20th May marked 2018’s Mental Health Awareness Week. The annual event was set up almost 17 years ago by the Mental Health Foundation and aims to improve understanding of mental health conditions in all areas of life.

This is an issue that we can ill afford to ignore, one in four people experience mental health problems each year. While mental health conditions can be the result of an almost endless list of factors, the Samaritans estimate that three out of five people have experienced mental health issues because of work.

Studies by Mind support the Samaritans findings. More than one in five people claim to have taken sick leave because of workplace stress.  For some it got too much, 14 per cent said they had resigned as a result and 42 per cent said they had considered it.  Only one in eight of those experiencing mental health problems are receiving treatment.

Nearly a third of those approached by Mind said that they felt unable to discuss mental health with their employers. The figures are higher for graduates, with 70 per cent saying they wouldn’t inform employers (potential or new) of mental health issues, for fear of a negative impact on their careers. Even more, 88 per cent, believe there is still stigma attached to mental health.

Aside from the obvious cost to individuals, poor management of mental health costs business dearly. The Centre for Mental Health estimates that 91 million working days are lost each year because of mental health problems. They put the cost to business at around £26 billion a year.

The good news is that Mind found that the majority (56 per cent) of employers are keen to do more to help their staff. They just want information, support and training to do so appropriately.

It is understandable that many employers find the issue daunting. It is a subject shrouded in mystery and manifests in almost unlimited ways. Organisations often fear that it will be costly to deal with preemptively, but the real cost comes from ignoring it.  Mental health conditions rarely improve by themselves and if left untreated they can become extremely difficult to manage. A ‘wait and see’ or ‘leave well alone’ attitude is simply not acceptable and doesn’t make good business sense.


Support your employees

Managing mental health in the workplace is not as challenging as it may seem. The first step is to make it part of a proactive health and wellbeing policy.

Fostering good relations with employees and taking an active interest in their wellbeing can make the world of difference. The graduates who took part in the study by the Samaritans, overwhelmingly said they would be more likely to open-up in an off-the-record face-to-face meeting with employers.

A company culture that promotes openness and honesty about mental health will encourage people to speak out early on, when they are feeling that they can’t cope. Engaging with employees before they start going off sick is invaluable. Developing a positive work-life balance, being mindful of working conditions and encouraging a positive social atmosphere can minimise workplace stressors.

A simple, but effective, approach to showing employees that you value and respect their concerns and wellbeing is regular one-to-one meetings.  Let them air worries and respond with appropriate support and direction. Be sure to show appreciation for a job well done. Get to know your teams. Keep an eye out for changes in personality or mood. Never just assume your employees are ok, take time to ask.


Train your managers

One of the biggest hurdles in dealing with mental health are the taboos that surround it. We can understand a broken leg, there are physical signs, a cast and an obvious impact, there is also usually a clear healing time-frame. However, many people living with a mental health condition appear to be fine on the surface, while underneath they are dealing with anxiety, depression or panic attacks.

How do you support someone when it’s hard to see what the problem is and how they are progressing?

It’s essential that organisations recognise the need for seeking and providing adequate training in this area. It is not enough to assume that a manager can confidently apply ‘common sense’ to the issue.

Ensure that line-managers know:

  • what to look out for
  • how to encourage employees to be open about any mental health concerns
  • what next steps need to be taken
  • the organisation’s policy on mental health.

Organisations should not be afraid to call in external experts when necessary.


Model it from the top

A genuine, inclusive approach to mental health needs to run through the entire organisation. Creating a culture of openness starts at the top. If the CEO speaks candidly about mental health, it sets the tone for the entire organisation.

Demonstrate the business takes this issue seriously by making mental health a part of the whole lifespan of an employee. From recruitment, through induction, staff management and training. This can be achieved with the support of a clear and well defined mental health policy. Promotion of acceptance, clarity around how the organisation will support employees and availability of additional help.

It is time to demystify mental health. To move ‘mental wellbeing’ from a single footnote in the company handbook to a core value through the heart of the organisation.