Reporting of the recent Germanwings crash has brought the subject of mental wellbeing at work into the media spotlight, but how should employers deal with mental health issues? And why is it so important that they do?
According to Mind, the mental health charity, one in six employees experience anxiety, stress, or depression. Figures from the Centre for Mental Health show that stress alone costs UK employers £26 billion a year and according to the Chartered Institute of Personal Development, stress is now the number one cause of sickness absence. And yet, 95 per cent of staff who had taken time off for stress gave their boss another reason, a YouGov poll commissioned by Mind found.
"Every organisation, regardless of size or sector, needs to take mental health seriously," Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at Mind, says. "Employers who fail to address the causes of poor mental health in their workplace will find that it comes at huge cost to the organisation in terms of poor staff morale and retention; and high sickness absence.
"Stress is not a diagnosed mental health problem but being exposed to prolonged stress can both cause and worsen mental health problems, leading to other issues such as tiredness, irritability, poor concentration, poor punctuality, sleep problems and so forth. Identifying and tackling the sources of stress can prevent such issues spiralling."
But how do employers go about caring about their staff’s mental wellbeing? The key, according to Mind’s guidelines, is a three pronged approach that promotes wellbeing for all staff, tackles the causes of work-related mental health problems and supports staff experiencing mental health issues. In practice, this could be simple inexpensive measures such as flexible working hours, regular catch-ups with managers and social activities that will all help staff to manage a better work-life balance and strengthen relationships between staff.
However, employers should do these things well. Emma warns against "simply paying ‘lip service’" to such initiatives.
"It’s vital that policies and procedures are regularly monitored and evaluated," she says.
"It’s also important to get senior buy in from director and board level, as well as HR. We are increasingly starting to see this as the high costs associated with poor mental health speak for themselves – it’s a problem too costly to ignore.
"There are certainly indications that this issue is being taken more seriously. There is greater awareness among employers about the benefits of looking after the wellbeing of staff – as well as the costs of ignoring mental health."
Every organisation, regardless of size or sector, needs to take mental health seriously.
A number of big companies are already working to improve their employees’ wellbeing and have signed up to Time to Change, a campaign set up by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness to end the stigma and discrimination that people with mental health problems face. One of those companies is BT, where they implemented a three-tired mental health framework and launched a 16 week programme to tackle problems such as anxiety, depress and stress that provided practical guidance to its 108,000 employees across the globe.
"We have seen a 30 per cent reduction in mental health sickness absence since we started tackling these issues a few years ago," BT’s head of health and safety Dr Paul Lichfield told the Guardian. "That represents the difference between having 650-700 people a day off with stress, depression, and anxiety to our current level of 550-600."
It’s not just employees who benefit from these kind of initiatives, however. "Organisations which promote staff wellbeing are rewarded in terms of increased staff morale and productivity and decreased sickness absence," Emma says.
"Changes put in place needn’t be costly – it’s mostly about creating an open honest environment where staff of all levels can talk about their mental health if they want to. Small inexpensive changes such as offering flexible working hours, buddy systems, social events and regular catch-ups with managers can make a huge difference and save businesses a great deal of money in the long run."