A recent report found that 7 out of 10 bosses don't think mental illness merits time off work. We asked RSCPP therapists to explain why this attitude needs to change, and what employers should be doing to take better care of their staff's mental health.
According to The Daily Telegraph, anxiety and stress now account for one in three absences from work, so the business world should be concerned by the news that 70% of bosses aren't taking their staff's mental health as seriously as their physical health. As Registered Psychotherapist Helen Davies says, employee mental health problems are only getting worse: "Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Dame Sally Davies noted in her September 2014 report that, since 2009, the number of working days lost to stress, depression, and anxiety has increased by 24%, and the number lost to serious mental illness has doubled."
As an employer, you will benefit from supporting your employees to keep mentally healthy.
From a business perspective, Accredited Counsellor Jan Baker says, "personal issues can have a major impact on your employee's work, which can result in sickness or lack of concentration. This adds up to a cost to your business, not just in working hours lost, but also in loss of productivity or engagement. As an employer, you will benefit from supporting your employees to keep mentally healthy, as your time will be freed up from dealing with these issues. Employee assistance programmes are not just for people in crisis, but a valuable resource to help employees with the everyday problems that we all face in life."
As Registered Psychotherapist Jean Pearson notes, "the problem with talking about mental health at work is that, sadly, there is still a stigma attached to it." The result of this stigma is that many staff understandably feel unable to confide in their boss or other colleagues for fear of judgement or disbelief.
The problem with talking about mental health at work is that, sadly, there is still a stigma attached to it.
Helen experienced this firsthand when she was asked to run a workshop for a company where some staff did not even believe depression exists. "My course focused on the causes, signs and implications of depression, followed by group discussions on how to respond and support those with depression," she explains. "The end of the course generated much discussion and engagement with the subject, and the staff felt engaged with depression because the course demystified the subject. Clear, brief and accessible information meant everyone could understand, and so respond from a position of knowledge."
Since stigma so often originates from a place of ignorance or misunderstanding, Helen believes raising awareness is a key part of understanding and tackling mental health in the workplace. "As humans we often feel scared of what we do not understand. If we empower everyone to understand a little more of the facts of mental health conditions, there is the opportunity for employees and employers to work together in noticing and responding positively to each other in the workplace," she says.
If you are concerned about an employee or colleague's mental health, don't be afraid to talk to them about it. "Mental ill health is no longer something to be ashamed of, and a listening ear can sometimes be all that is needed," says Jan. "However," she adds, "sometimes pointing them in the direction of help is invaluable to prevent their issues deepening. Mental health is an issue for all of us, and support early on might prevent serious problems in the future."
Mental health is an issue for all of us, and support early on might prevent serious problems in the future.
Of course, that's not to say it's always easy to approach the subject in a professional environment, where staff may be concerned that discussing mental health issues will affect their career prospects. If stigma is an issue in your place of work, Jean recommends finding more accessible ways to express your concern: "The best way to approach the subject with employees or colleagues you're concerned about is to enquire whether they are suffering from stress," she says. "This is an acceptable word, which covers all degrees of emotional distress. Someone is much more likely to talk freely if he or she does not feel judged in any way."
Finally, remember that your staff's mental health is an important asset for your business, so providing appropriate support for those who are struggling is a vital long-term investment. "All employers should feel responsible for providing help if stress arises from workplace practices and should also feel enlightened enough to provide help when the crisis is due to personal problems, as these can severely impact work performance," Jean says.
All employers should feel responsible for providing help if stress arises from workplace practices.
"Many employers have in place an Employee Assistance Scheme (EAS), which arranges a contract with an independent agency to provide free, individual and confidential counselling to the member of staff concerned. Employers can also help in maintaining a healthy work environment by regularly seeking consultation with staff about improving working conditions and expectations about work performance," she adds. "Prevention is always better than cure; an employee suffering from a mental breakdown can require extensive sick leave, leaving the work force depleted."