Mental illness is now the number one cause of staff absence. As a leader or line manager in your organisation, this could affect you. Firstly, you have a legal duty of care to those you employ. Secondly, staff absence leads to reduced productivity, increased pressure among teammates forced to take on additional work and, ultimately, reduced profits for your employer.
Mental health in the workplace: let’s break the stigma
“In 2014, mental health conditions affected almost 1 in 5 of all working age people and around one in seven of people in full-time employment. In the workplace, 18 million days were lost to sickness absence caused by mental health conditions in 2015 at a cost of around £9 billion a year to employers.” This is from a government press release issued in January 2017.
- What stops us from talking about this subject openly and honestly?
- When did we, as compassionate human beings, stop caring for one another?
- Why are employers not dealing with this growing problem?
Mental health conditions, known as the invisible illnesses, may not be as easy to recognise as physical injuries or ailments. However, employers should be treating them all in the same way.
When an employee returns to work after a period of sickness or a physical injury, say a broken arm for example, their colleagues welcome them back with compassionate words. The employee gets all kinds of support, possibly even having their working environment reassessed or adjusted. They may also be given some additional short-term flexibility in their working hours as they gradually ease themselves back into the swing of things.
On the other hand, where an employee comes back to work after a period of sickness related to mental health, usually only a minority of colleagues will ask about their well-being. Most will try to avoid them. This is despite the fact that poor mental health is now the number one reason for staff absence.
Organisations rely on having a healthy and productive workforce, so it makes no sense for employers to ignore the wellbeing of their staff. Employers have a duty of care under UK law to protect the health, safety and welfare of all employees. It's about creating a culture of care in organisations.
Why are people in the workplace scared and ignorant about confronting the issue? And, how can we all take ownership, recognise mental health and remove the stigma that surrounds this subject in the workplace?
Let’s start by looking at some simple measures that we can all, as employers, take to support the mental wellbeing of our people.
Engage leadership from the top down
Educate the leaders in your organisation and get their buy-in. People in leadership positions have a gift of privilege and can touch many people's lives in a positive way if they chose to. Get them to grasp the importance of mental health and invest time and money into building wellbeing into the culture of the organisation. Recently, Prime Minister Theresa May announced that she wants to create a 'shared society' and reduce stigma around mental health. It’s a big issue in society and leaders need to respond and create healthy, happy workplaces.
Create policies and procedures for employee wellbeing
Organisations should have specific measures in place to support people with mental health issues. Review your policies and procedures. Do you have guidance notes that outline your mental health policy? Avoid seeing this as a box ticking exercise and instead create guidelines for your employees. Remember, you have a duty of care to look after the wellbeing of your staff.
Create a mentally healthy workplace and sign up to an employee assistance programme (EAP). This will provide employees with free, confidential access to professional consultants, expert referrals and online resources. EAPs help employees with a range of issues, from work life balance to emotional wellbeing and much more besides. Often, an external voice is more powerful than an internal voice.
Be a supportive line manager
Too often, people leave an organisation due to poor management, not the job itself. Good management is key to retaining staff and helping to control factors such as stress and unpredictability that can exacerbate mental health issues.
If you’re a line manager, look for ways to minimise the risk of impairing the wellbeing of your team members. In particular, consider any negative pressures at work.
If you oversee line-managers as part of your role, educate them and run mental health awareness sessions with experts in the field. We live such crazy lives these days that we sometimes forget to stop, look around and notice what’s happening. Line managers are under pressure and primarily concerned about hitting targets, so can easily forget that their biggest asset is their people - this is particularly true in teams which have a tendency towards perfectionism; where managers struggle to differentiate between "my way and a different way but still right" and so tend to delegate inconsistently and insufficiently; and where team members do a large proportion of their activity individually (such as contract review).
Line managers need to spend time with their teams and have regular catch-up sessions. Simply asking "how are you?" can highlight the early signs of depression and anxiety and help managers determine what practical steps they can take to support their teams. Encourage managers to take an honest, open communication approach and to offer the right support if anyone in the team experiences mental distress.
Managers who have used behavioural profiling as part of their development work with their teams may also be able to see behavioural shifts in team members from their normal behaviours that might give an early indication of stress or pressure which the manager can respond to.
Create a working environment where you support the physical and psychological health of your people. Actively promote the means devised to adopt healthier lifestyles, both within and outside of the workplace through initiatives, incentives and by role modelling positive lifestyle choices where possible. Employers who actively encourage good mental health of their workforce will reap the rewards. Employees will be more productive, staff turnover will reduce and the profits will increase.
Talk about it
The responsibility to create a supportive culture at work may start at the top, but everyone has a responsibility to maintain it.
The campaign Time to Change, led by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, enjoyed an overwhelming response. People spoke openly and wrote blogs about the difficulties they faced and how workplaces either supported them or, more often, discriminated against them. Run your own internal Time to Change campaign and get people talking about this stuff. Remember, we must break the stigma.
Mental health is a big issue and it's not going away. The taboo around it will take time to break down. But, as Mahatma Gandhi said: "in your own small way you can change the world."
So get these simple measures in place and let’s start changing how we treat colleagues with mental health conditions.
Mental health conditions are the number one cause of staff absence, yet still people feel stigmatised when they struggle through work with mental illness or return after a period of depression or anxiety-induced absence. As employers and line managers, we can do more to reduce this stigma and improve wellbeing among our colleagues. Educating our leaders, creating policies aimed at staff wellbeing and signing up to an EAP will go a long way to creating a caring culture in which people can minimise the risk of a mental illness. They’ll also demonstrate a proactive approach and help reduce the stigma felt by anyone who does develop a mental illness.