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Putting employees’ minds at rest about mental health

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Today is World Mental Health Day – an initiative now in its second decade, designed to raise education and awareness around mental health issues and its impact on those whose lives are impacted by it.

However, despite the ongoing work done to address the taboo and stigmatisation of mental health, its incidence in the workplace remains all too high.

Between 2009 and 2013 the number of sick days lost to stress, depression and anxiety amongst the UK workforce increased by 24%. What is less tangible but equally concerning for business leaders is the impact of “presenteeism”, essentially staff ignoring the problems they’re suffering, and instead feeling compelled to plough on through the day. It’s ineffective for the business, and it’s harmful for the individual – so what’s to be done?

Many would agree that businesses have been somewhat slow to put in place both preventative strategies to keep employees happy and healthy and also ensure that staff who do suffer from mental health problems have access to the right support and expertise. This was reflected in a Business in the Community study published last week which revealed that over a quarter of managers (76%) felt staff wellbeing was their responsibility, yet 80% say organisational barriers prevented them from delivering it. One major barrier was the lack of understanding of mental health amongst staff which many businesses are struggling to address through initiatives such as training, with just one in five managers in the UK receiving specific mental health training.

Equally important is the ability for employees to feel they can raise the issue. As an employer, your staff must feel like they can be open and honest with their colleagues and management and this will allow you to build a workforce which feels valued, more productive and less stressed. 

Responsibility for creating a culture where this is possible initially falls to senior management and team leaders, but the entire organisation has a role to play here. Everyone needs to buy into and contribute to creating a positive, supportive culture. Recruitment also plays an important role in this, as the greater the level of importance a business places on the values and emotional intelligence of candidates the more likely they are to help grow a positive culture.  If a company can get this right, then both staff and the business will reap the rewards.

Of course, there will always be instances where staff have mental health problems, and it’s the stigma that needs removing, not the condition. This is where human resources (HR) need to ensure they offer a network of support for employees, providing access to resources and external experts as required. HR departments also have a role in helping the business leaders better understand mental health issues and recognise the tell-tale signs of a staff member who is struggling, and this is where a comprehensive training initiative is essential. At present, the most common approach to dealing with a staff member suffering with mental health problems is to either grant time off work or offer a job change, both of which go against what employees want and best practice.  

Research to date tells us that businesses have struggled to effectively tackle mental health problems. They have, by and large, adopted an approach that what they can’t see doesn’t exist. That clearly doesn’t wash, and it is time that all businesses, big and small, take measures to tackle the issue head on.

Jamie True

By Jamie True

Jamie is the founder and CEO of Lifeworks, the employee engagement and wellbeing app.

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