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Mental health matters

Posted on by from AXA PPP

Workplace wellness is a concept whose time has come, as the impact of employee health – especially mental health – on performance and productivity is a multi-billion pound issue says Dr Mark Winwood. According to the Centre for Mental Health, mental ill health costs UK employers around £26bn a year. Winwood expands.

Engage with the problem, don’t ignore it

According to the Labour Force Survey, the problem is growing, the number of sick days taken due to stress, anxiety and depression increased from 11.8m days in 2010 to 15.2m days in 2013, accounting for around 11% of work days lost.**

For progressive employers, awareness of the importance of employee mental health has grown to the point that it has become an integral part of people management but, regrettably, for too many others, the picture is far from encouraging. For example, our own research of senior business managers, executives and owners undertaken in February of this year revealed that over two thirds (69%) don’t believe that suffering from stress, anxiety or depression is a serious enough reason for employees to be absent from work. ***

It’s a prejudice that does neither employers nor employees living with mental ill health issues any favours.

Everyone is fighting a personal battle

It is important to appreciate that employees are affected by a multitude of pressures and calls upon their resources and time. When these outstrip their perceived ability to cope, they can lead to stress, anxiety or even depression if allowed to continue unabated. To manage this ever present threat, HR must be vigilant and support line managers in identifying employees who are struggling to cope and take positive measures to help them to deal with the difficulties they’re facing.

Thankfully, there are solutions. First and foremost, HR can play a leading role in challenging the stigma that continues to surround mental health at work. HR professionals can, for example, call upon their business’ leaders to commit to creating a positive, supportive workplace culture where managers and staff are aware and understand the importance of good mental health. Doing so should enable employees who are affected by mental ill health to feel confident to speak openly about it.

Buy-in and leadership from the top are critical for success and, to take this forward, managers at all levels of the organisation need to be properly trained and supported so that they are able to have effective conversations with affected employees without having a negative impact. 

Key to success

The key to success is maintaining a strong focus on wellbeing. The following advice can help you and your organisation to do so and, in turn, support the mental health of your workforce.

  • Workplace culture: building and maintaining a positive, supportive workplace culture needs to be led from the top, with senior managers demonstrating their awareness of and commitment to safeguarding mental health. Integral to this is the promotion of a healthy work/life balance to lessen the likelihood of overwork and burn-out – for example, if bosses make a point of leaving work on time, others will follow suit.
  • Working well: employers can encourage a wellness culture in a number of ways. These can include flexible working, encouraging employees to take regular breaks (and their holiday) and even having email ‘blackouts’ outside of working hours. HR is well placed to track employees’ uptake of holiday and can use this information as an opportunity for conversations with mangers to check how employees are doing and whether they’re taking sufficient time off to rest and recharge.
  • Work/life balance: a good work/life balance is critical for employee wellbeing. To avoid the pitfalls of overworking, try to encourage employees to work to their contracted hours. It is good policy to encourage employees to do their best when they’re at work but also to make the most of their time, unhindered by workplace concerns, when they’re done for the day. It will help them to become more resilient and less likely to succumb to stress and fatigue.
  • Diet and exercise: while HR professionals may feel it’s not their place to counsel employees on lifestyle choices such as diet and exercise, factors such as these can have significant impact on both physical and psychological health and, in turn, on performance and productivity. Indeed, poor physical health can adversely affect mood, self-esteem, energy levels and resilience. Even simple measures such as encouraging a healthy, balanced diet (which employers can facilitate by ensuring their canteens, vending machines and lunch delivery services offer healthy choices) and regular exercise (which they can facilitate through gym discounts and promoting lunch-time walking groups and sports like five-a-side football) can pay dividends by improving employees’ physical and mental health.

Confident, psychologically secure employees are a vital asset and, by taking the lead on introducing measures such as those described above, HR professionals can go a long way to ensuring their organisation successfully supports employee health and wellbeing.


Mental health at work: developing the business case. Centre for Mental Health, 2007

** Sickness Absence in the Labour Market. Office for National Statistics, February 2014

*** Online survey of 1000 senior business managers, MDs, CEOs and owners undertaken in February 2015 by market researcher One Poll.

Mark Winwood

By Mark Winwood

Director of psychological services for AXA PPP healthcare.

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