With this year’s focus being on mental health in the workplace, research reveals there is still a long way to go to address the issue

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Mental health is a prominent topic in the zeitgeist and rightfully so as it affects us all at some point in our lives. Mental Health awareness day shines a light on those affected by mental health issues, with hopes of opening dialogue, how has this fared in the workplace?

Three in five employees (60%) have experienced mental health issues as a result of work in the last year, according to the National Employee Mental Wellbeing survey by the charity Business in the Community in partnership with YouGov.

There has been a slight increase in those who are formally diagnosed with mental health issues, with almost a third (31%) being diagnosed in 2017 compared to 29% in 2016. While only 13% of employees feel comfortable disclosing mental health issues to their line managers, this is still an increase from 2016.

There is a reason workers feel apprehensive divulging mental health issues with their employers, as the research found that of those that revealed this information, 15% were subjected to disciplinary procedures, demotion or dismissal, which is worryingly an increase from 2016 where only 9% received these repercussions.

Aliya Vigor-Robertston, co-founder at JourneyHR states, “Businesses should view the results of the YouGov survey as an opportunity to rethink their approach to staff wellbeing. Compared to last year, almost twice as many employees have experienced a dismissal, demotion or even disciplinary action after discussing a mental health issue at work. Improvement is clearly needed here, starting with two big challenges that all leaders need to address: removing the stigma surrounding poor mental health and making sure that staff are appropriately supported at work.”

Mental health is still one of the most difficult topics for employees to discuss at work, although just over half (53%) of employees feel comfortable to discuss topics such as depression and anxiety in the workplace.

The crux of the problem stems from the misconception that senior leaders have, with 61% of CEOs, owners, managing directors or board members believing that staff receive adequate support compared to 40% of those who aren’t in managerial roles.

Adrian Lewis, Director of Codel Software highlights that in September research from the NHS claimed that one in three ‘sick notes’ issued are for mental health, making psychiatric problems the most common reason for people to take time off work.

Adrian Lewis says, “Absenteeism costs UK businesses approximately £2.4 billion per year and with mental health now the number one reason for people to miss work, are companies doing enough to proactively tackle mental health issues head on?”

“There are several preventative measures employers can take to spot early warning signs but these are often overlooked. Commonly, employers only become aware of an issue when an employee is signed off sick with anxiety or stress - this is too late. By then, their performance, confidence and productivity is likely to have been affected.”

There is hope for change in behaviour as 84% of managers recognise that employee mental health and wellbeing forms part of their responsibilities, which is an increase from 2016. However, managers are calling for more effective training and support in order to treat mental health issues appropriately.

Dr Bhagat shares a few simple steps on how to maintain a good mental health and wellbeing in the workplace, as part of World Mental Health Day 2017:

“As a doctor working in such a demanding environment, I have admittedly been under a lot of pressure throughout my career and have struggled to maintain mental health and wellbeing at work. It’s no surprise that one in six workers suffer from anxiety, depression and management stress – I find that an increasing number of my patients are finding it difficult to cope with stressful work situations and therefore more are taking sick leave. In 2015, 18 million days were lost to sickness absence caused by mental health conditions – this presents a huge issue.”

“It’s important that as a society we recognise the need to take more proactive steps to invest in addressing and improving mental health in the workplace. There seems to be a lack of communication in the work environment when it comes to anxiety or stress – employees are uncomfortable or even scared to disclose a mental health issue. The Mental Health at Work 2017 report revealed that only one in ten employees felt they could tell their line manager about a mental health issue and three in four people suffering choose not to involve any colleagues.”

“Employers should invest in mental health training to create an open dialogue amongst their staff, to help make them comfortable with voicing their problems. But I believe there are also smaller, simple steps both parties could follow to improve things, such as using positive language in the workplace, fostering a culture of support and openness, and scheduling regular support sessions for employees. For employees, even just taking your lunch break every day can revitalise your mind and body, and could be a time spent to reflect on your successes and achievements from that week. Also, by adopting an active lifestyle outside of the workplace with exercise such as yoga, jogging, cycling, swimming, or dance, you can improve your mental health that will gradually reduce stress and hypertension.”

There are a number of ways employers can take steps to address mental health issues.

The initial step can be achieved by educating employees about wellbeing and mental health. It’s great to see that businesses are starting to create wellbeing strategies to achieve this, but leaders need to make sure they are more than just plans. Wellbeing strategies need to be brought to life in order to make a positive change in the company and staff.

The next step would be to invest in training their managers to spot the early signs of poor mental health. By recognising the triggers and potential symptoms, managers will be able to provide the support that staff need at the right time.

Vigor-Robertston adds “Employee engagement is crucial for any of these interventions or strategies to take effect. However, different approaches will work for different businesses. In order to make sure the right processes are in place; senior management need to ask staff what is needed to improve their wellbeing and then make sure these requests are being fulfilled.”

If employers start an open and regular dialogue about mental health issues, good tracking and monitoring of absence data to keep on top of issues as well as proactively signposting support services available through EAPs, such as counselling, companies can make big strides towards improving the mental wellbeing of their workforce.