Why is mental health awareness at work so important?
Mental health is something we all possess. When it is good, we have a sense of purpose and direction and feel that we can cope with whatever life (and work) throws at us. But just as our physical health fluctuates, so too our mental health goes through ups and downs. Raising awareness of potential mental health issues in the workplace is part of fostering an inclusive workplace, where people feel able to bring their whole selves to work.
Having now been in lockdown for seven weeks, the uncertainty and concern around our current situation and the longer term outlook has generated a whole mix of emotions and related physical symptoms. For many, this extended period of isolation and lack of contact has created stress, anxiety, boredom and the accentuation of underlying conditions, that previously were manageable.
With approximately 6.5 million workers furloughed, the strain is also taking its toll on those workers who are holding the fort, picking up extra tasks and responsibilities and in some instances at reduced salary levels. The overarching understanding of the need to sustain businesses for the short term is very apparent, however risking the mental wellbeing of those who remain at work.
In normal circumstances, we all have tough times when we feel low, stressed or frightened. Usually, those feelings pass, but sometimes they develop into anxiety or depression. And some people have more complex, long-term mental health conditions, such as an eating disorder, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. All of these can affect our ability to engage and perform at work at a consistently high level.
Diagnosis is not always a predictor of an individual’s experience either, so as managers and colleagues it is important never to jump to conclusions. For example, some schizophrenics lead fully-functioning lives, while others living with anxiety are severely impacted by their condition.
Workplace wellbeing, then, refers to the business goal of being watchful of, and then improving on, the collective mental health of your workplace, so that everyone feels supported and included, particularly in the more difficult times.
According to the mental health charity Mind, at any one time, at least one in six workers are experiencing common mental health problems, including anxiety and depression. Poor mental health is costing UK employers between £33-42 billion a year. If you a private sector employer, the cost to you is an average of more than £1,100 per employee each year.
Good mental health enables us to thrive. As individuals we understand this and now business leaders, too, are increasingly acknowledging the importance of wellbeing in the workplace.
Research studies provide strong evidence that companies with high levels of mental health awareness are more successful. According to research by University of Warwick, addressing wellbeing at work increases productivity by up to 12%. And, as reported in the government’s Stevenson-Farmer Review of Mental Health and Employers in 2017, businesses that invest in mental health interventions report an average of £4.20 return for each pound spent.
Raising mental health awareness at work – the business benefits
Internationally, the impact of mental health awareness-raising initiatives in the workplace is already proving overwhelmingly positive. A 2017 Deloitte study evidenced approaches across Germany, Canada, Australia, France, Belgium and Sweden which are empowering employers to implement interventions.
“As always prevention is better than cure”, says Ruth Cooper-Dickson. “We know that the average seven-day absence from works costs £8,000 and that 300,000 people leave their jobs every year due to serious mental health problems. Alongside the human toll is a cost to employers – the recruitment of a new team member costs an average £30,000 – so it is not so much whether your business can afford a mental health strategy, but more that it cannot afford not to have one.”
Mental health awareness for managers – Four signs to watch out for
Ninety-one million working days a year are lost to mental health issues – that’s an estimated cost of £35 billion to UK employers – but 67% of workers report feeling too scared or embarrassed to admit taking time out for mental health reasons.
“It is crucial that businesses are open and transparent about mental health, and that this starts at the top”, says Vix Anderton, EW Group’s course leader for Workplace Wellbeing for Managers.
“Leaders and managers have to lead by example in approaching difficult conversations with compassion and openness. Simple things like leaving the office on time and taking a lunch break can send a powerful message to your staff about the importance of their wellbeing. Providing training on mental health awareness will make your people feel more confident around the subject and highlight the policies and mechanisms you have in place to support them.”
If you’re a manager at work, here are some common signs that can surface in colleagues who are struggling with their mental health:
- They may exhibit physical symptoms, such as tiredness due to sleep deprivation or persistent headaches.
- They may be making more mistakes than normal, productivity drops off and they are having trouble with decision-making.
- They may become more irritable or conversely complacent, and make reference to increased alcohol consumption.
- Absence may increase or alternatively they start to work much longer hours, starting early or staying late.
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