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Mental health in the workplace

By Lara Wood
Rehabilitation Consultant

Why is it Important

Employers should expect that at any one time nearly 1 in 6 of their workforce is affected by a mental health problem.   The Centre for Mental Health outlines how every organisation in Britain is affected by mental health stating that 91 million days are lost each year due to mental health problems.

The total cost to employers is estimated at nearly £26 billion each year, which is equivalent to £1035 for every employee in the UK workforce. Simple steps to improve the management of mental health at work should enable employers to save 30% or more of these costs, at least £8 billion a year. 

Recently during the launch of the Heads Together campaign Prince William, the Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry helped bring mental health into the media and are urging the nation to start a conversation with a friend, relative or stranger if they have a problem.

During the campaign talk, Prince William commented that there are times when, whoever we are, we can find it hard to cope with challenges and when that happens, asking for help is life changing, talking to someone else is a positive step forward but for too long it has been a case of keeping quiet and carry on.

The most common reasons for staff absence are stress, depression and anxiety, it is thought that the majority of mental health absences could be prevented by employers utilising a number of simple cost effective measures to support and protect their employees.

Mental health can impact on how an individual can function in all aspects of their life. Individuals can initially mask their symptoms and can develop often negative coping strategies such as developing a drinking dependency, over-eating or self harming.

Physical health is often more apparent and obvious but mental health is more difficult to spot and identify and can be easily hidden away.

Triggers of mental health are unique to the individual but are often linked to stress, trauma, and/or significant life events. Often they are multi-factorial and are often difficult to attribute a single cause.

What can employers do?

There are clear links between physical and mental health which further supports the case for protecting mental health and wellbeing at work. A lot of the coping strategies can have an impact on an individual’s physical health.

Poor mental health is linked to an increased risk of disease, cancer and diabetes, while good mental health is a known protective factor, poor physical health also increases the risk of people developing mental health problems. 

Positive Coping strategies in the work place:

  • Flexible working options
  • Effectively trained mental health managers
  • Raising awareness and creating an open culture to discuss mental health
  • Involving employees in decision making
  • Integrating mental health and wellbeing through out policies and procedures
  • Introducing stress risk management procedures
  • Providing access to employee assistance programmes and occupational health
  • Having regular meetings with managers
  • Introducing performance management processes
  • Conducting return to work interviews
  • Employee assistance programmes – some employers have these services but are often under used due to lack of employee awareness

People will have their own individual positive coping strategies which work for them;  exercise, sleep hygiene, relaxation, mindfulness, yoga. Employees need to be encouraged to develop wellness action plans to proactively look after their mental health, to be open and seek support sooner rather than waiting until the problems present. Identifying specific triggers and warning signs of symptoms, utilising positive individualised coping strategies, and putting them together in an action and crisis plan is a positive step for all.   

Effective strategies which companies have found to work are having wellbeing champions and mental health first aiders, regular ‘tool box talks’ where positive coping strategies can be shared and discussed which is an opportunity to talk about mental health openly.  

Managers need to be able to identify early signs of mental health issues which may include mood changes, social withdrawal and sleeping problems.

More importantly is that managers and employers need to be approachable and provide time for direct reports to raise and discuss mental health problems.

The responsibility does not rest with the manager only as employers need to instil work place cultures where it is acceptable to talk about mental health problems. Developing wellness action plans whether an individual has a mental health issue or not sends a clear message out that an organisation cares about employee wellbeing and helps encourage people to be open and seek support sooner. 

An action plan developed between an individual and their manager can develop tailored support for a time when the individual is not coping so well, it also facilitates open dialogue with managers, practical agreed steps such as what to do if they are feeling overwhelmed in their working role.