Why is mental health still a workplace taboo?

According to management consultancy firm Deloitte, the economic cost of poor mental health in the workplace is estimated at £33bn-£42bn each year. A staggering 300,000 people with long-term mental health problems lose their jobs each year.

In recent years, more and more businesses have started talking about - and crucially, addressing - mental health issues at work, thanks to initiatives by Time to Change and mental health charity Mind. We’ve seen progress; however for many, mental health at work still remains a taboo subject.

Research paints a fractured picture

A co-produced report from the British Chamber of Commerce and Aviva released in August this year, surveying 1,000 businesses across the UK, shows that 30 per cent of businesses have seen an increase in the number of staff taking time off for mental health reasons. Over one in three employers see an increase in the length of time off due to poor mental health.

The survey suggests that employers and employees alike are starting to talk more openly about mental health at work. Businesses are adapting to employee needs, by reviewing individual workloads (36 per cent), offering flexible working hours (35 per cent) and organising counselling for staff (20 per cent), as well as offering training to managers to better support staff (18 per cent).

Adam Marshall, director general of the British Chamber of Commerce, is aware that although this looks promising, there still remains a lot more to be done.

"While legions of firms are now more aware of mental health concerns and acting accordingly, far too many businesses are still turning a blind eye to this issue, which saps productivity, morale and individual wellbeing. Our message today is that it is no longer acceptable for firms to ignore mental health in the workplace, and all companies need to step up their game", he states.

Figures from the Shaw Trust, a charity helping young people and adults to get access to education, work and wellbeing, give a more complex picture. The trust’s recent survey, Mental Health at Work: Still the Last Taboo (May 2018), reports that 56 per cent of employers are reluctant to employ someone with a mental health condition due to fear of them being stigmatized by their co-workers (up by five per cent since 2009). Alarmingly, half of the employers surveyed viewed employing workers with mental health conditions as a 'significant risk' to their business (up by 10 per cent from 2009).

Awareness is on the up

Although the report’s findings show that attitudes and subsequent support need to shift, it confirms that employers are more aware than ever before of mental health issues in the workplace. Awareness of employees with mental health conditions within respondents’ own organisations has more than doubled since 2009, from 21 per cent to 52 per cent.

"Employers are more understanding of mental health issues, and a greater proportion of them have tools, policies and procedures in place to support employees experiencing mental ill health," says Roy O’Shaughnessy, chief executive of the Shaw Trust.

"However, our research also highlights an entrenching of the stigma that many employees experience due to their mental ill health."

Despite the ongoing stigma surrounding mental health at work, he remain positive.

"I believe that for the first time we have the will from government and policymakers, as well as societal support, to tackle this stigma."

Who is leading the way?

It is undeniable that there is still a stigma that surrounds poor mental health at work. Campaigns such as Time to Change and Mind’s Workplace Wellbeing Index (a ranking of the best employers who are addressing poor mental health in the workplace) aim to address this, challenging employers to recognise this issue, and put more focus on promoting workplace wellbeing whilst supporting their staff.

The campaigns have gone from strength to strength, with over 850 employers signing the Time to Change organisational pledge and 70 employers (nearly double the amount from last year) participating in Mind’s Workplace Wellbeing Index.

This growth in numbers shows that businesses are recognising poor mental health as a key issue, and are showing their commitment to tackling the work-related causes of poor mental health, supporting their staff and promoting positive mental health within the workplace.

"Through the Time to Change employer pledge, we’ve noticed a complete sea change in the way some employers view mental health," states Jo Loughran, director at Time to Change.

"Where five years ago we saw industries like construction and transport underrepresented in the mental health at work space, we now see these industries taking the lead in placing mental health in the same space as physical health and safety."

World Mental Health Day: Looking after your mental health at work

Despite this upturn, underrepresentation from certain industries is still a problem, says Loughran. Perhaps unsurprisingly, hospitality and retail are two sectors that the social movement still struggles to recruit to the pledge.

Aside from the big trailblazers such as Tesco, John Lewis & Partners, and Marks & Spencer, Loughran laments that very few retailers have signed the pledge, stating that they find it difficult to support staff that are customer-facing and working across different sites.

Mind’s Workplace Wellbeing Index recognises the efforts of a variety of businesses, from the public and private sectors. The likes of ITN and American Express rub shoulders with the British Library, St Paul’s School, Morgan Sindall construction, and Historic England in the categories, showing that progress has been made.

On the September 11th, the Duke of Cambridge and Mind launched a new website, the Mental Health at Work gateway, to help workplaces improve staff wellbeing. This comes off the back of a survey, showing that as many as one in four employees suffer in silence.

How are businesses adapting?

"My employer understood the personal impact of the illness [poor mental health]. I was given time & space to get better," says Clive, a project manager for the Civil Service.

As more leading figures speak more openly and more often about the challenges of poor mental health and the need to address these, companies and businesses in both the private and public sectors have started to rethink their position and their offering to help.

"When an employee breaks a leg or suffers an infection, we know how to respond. Mental health should be dealt with in the same way," says António Horta Osório, group CEO of Lloyd’s banking group.

Rethinking the way businesses react and adapt to poor mental health within the workforce is paramount. Having someone to speak with - a line manager or an HR department - is the first step. Making small changes within an employee’s workload, for example, can make a huge difference.

"My workload was changed to ease my anxiety. I was given access to professional support through our Occupational Health Service," adds Clive.

It all starts with communication, and making employees feel supported. Time to Change advocates for employers to clearly define roles and responsibilities, a manageable workload and achievable targets. Regular communication between employees and their line managers is also strongly advised, especially for those working remotely and/or in isolation.

Sharing experiences is key. Whether anonymously online or within a small group, this step helps people feel connected and supported. Employees don’t feel isolated in their experiences, and this may spur others to reflect on their own mental health, and speak up in times of need.

"During 2016 and 2017, we published stories on our intra-group website of colleagues who have experienced poor mental health," adds Horta Osório. "What has been most powerful for many colleagues has been the simple step of enabling people to talk openly about their experiences without fear of judgement."

"Mental health is just as important as your physical health," says Rebecca Hudson of Sphere Digital Recruitment, on LinkedIn. "Take a day if you're feeling low, you wouldn't think twice about taking a day off it you had a funny tummy. It can be easy to neglect your mental health with the pressure of daily responsibilities."

What steps can employers take to improve mental health within the workplace?

What can businesses do to promote change and support employees who experience poor mental health? Jo Loughran from Time to Change has some tips:

1. Leading by example. More senior leaders need to be open about their own
experiences with mental health problems to show that it isn’t a sign of weakness and
it won’t hinder your career if you open up to your colleagues.

2. Being clear about why a mentally healthy workplace is valuable. A workplace
where everyone is supported to talk openly about their mental health creates a
positive, inclusive and more productive workplace for everyone.

3. Talking things through with line managers. Line managers need to feel
comfortable having conversations about mental health with their direct reports. It
doesn’t need to be difficult or scary, simply raising the issue or asking how they are
feeling is a great start. Avoiding the issue could make people feel more inclined to
hide their mental health problem.

4.Sharing with one another. Things will only change if we are all more open with one
another. Encouraging employees to speak about their mental health at work by
speaking publicly about it at events and meetings, through blog posts or the
intranet can be a great way to do this. Feedback from employers tells us that this
makes the biggest difference in starting a cultural shift.

5. Be clear about how employees will be treated. Employees need to know that they
will be treated fairly and without negative consequence if they disclose a mental
health problem at work.

6. Sign the Time to Change Employer Pledge. By signing the Time to Change
Employer Pledge
, employers commit to opening up the conversation about mental
health at work and making sure staff feel supported to talk about their experiences.

Head over to the Virgin Facebook page on October 10th at 4.45pm (BST), where we'll be live streaming a World Mental Health Day panel dicussion featuring Poppy Jamie, founder of Happy Not Perfect; Vanessa Boachie, founder and creative director of Inside Out; Andrew Brown, head of corporate partnerships at CALM; and Vanessa King, positive psychologist, author and board member for Action for Happiness.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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