Thankfully, it’s a conversation we’re starting to have more often.
Mental health, and its relationship with our working lives, is becoming more of an acceptable topic of discussion for people round the country, and rightly so. With a multitude of stresses in daily life giving us plenty to worry about, employers are coming round to the idea that it’s something that needs considering - not just for the sake of increased productivity, but because it’s the right thing to do.
The phrase mental health refers to a broad range of concepts. Generally, it encompasses both the day-to-day wellbeing of our minds, and the long-term health of our emotions, perceptions, thoughts and behaviours.
Mind, the mental health charity, have a list of 32 mental health problems that might affect our work. There are the more common ones such as anxiety, depression, phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), as well as rarer and more severe ones like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
There’s two ways these relate to work: issues that are caused or exacerbated by working conditions, and conditions that affect our ability to work and need accommodating.
The Mind People Manager's Guide to Mental Health identifies the main issue getting in the way of these issues being addressed: silence.
"Mental health is still the elephant in the room in most workplaces – employees are reluctant to raise the subject, for fear of discrimination, while managers often shy away from the subject, for fear of making matters worse or provoking legal consequences. This culture of silence means undetected mental health issues can spiral into a crisis, resulting in sickness absence, higher levels of presenteeism and increased staff turnover."
It's a situation that sorely needs changing. Here are a few ways businesses can start addressing this most important of problems.
Implement a Mental Health Policy
It seems simple, but you’d be surprised how rare it is for companies to have a mental health policy that isn’t just a blanket sickness-absence policy.
Managers don’t have to spend a great deal of time preparing a huge document - just something simple that shows that reasonable accommodation will be made for anyone suffering.
There’s a downloadable mental health policy template available at Workable Resources which would be useful to customise for your company.
Provide mental wellbeing resources
Accessible wellbeing resources, like meditation and mindfulness classes, quiet rooms for prayer and reflection, or meditation software subscriptions, could be a well-received boost to employees' everyday mental health.
You could also consider a review of the office environment - noise-dampening measures to reduce stress, more plants in the office, more natural lighting, or properly filtered air can all play a very important part in making the office a nicer place to be.
Physical wellbeing resources would also be a welcome addition, like gym memberships, standing desks, ergonomic chairs, or masseur visits. The connection between the mind and the body shouldn't be forgotten.
These, of course, won’t address the more severe mental ailments. And telling someone who’s genuinely depressed to just ‘meditate it off’ is insulting and reductive. But for promoting mental wellbeing, mindfulness is a scientifically proven method to improve many people’s moods and plays a part in an overall mental health strategy.
Make work a good place to be
Workplace stress is one of the most common causes of ill health. Overwork culture might produce results in the short-term, but it doesn't always mean more work is getting done. In fact, it can be both ineffective and harmful.
“Your time in the office feels shorter because it’s sliced up into a dozen smaller bits. Most people don’t actually have 8 hours a day to work, they have a couple of hours. The rest of the day is stolen from them by meetings, conference calls, and other distractions.”
The quality of working time isn’t given as much thought as it should be. Presenteeism is the act of continuing to work while ill, or working beyond agreed hours, and it’s still as much of a problem as ever.
“If you can’t fit everything you want to do within 40 hours per week, you need to get better at picking what to do, not work longer hours. Most of what we think we have to do, we don’t have to do at all. It’s a choice, and often a poor one. When you cut out what’s unnecessary, you’re left with what you need. And all you need is 8 hours a day for about 5 days a week.”
A company culture that promotes sensible working styles rather than overtime and workaholism is likely to have a much calmer, healthy workforce - and thus, a productive one.
It's clear that businesses have the opportunity to do much more for their employees' mental health. If anything, the financial incentives are striking. The aforementioned Mind guide researched the cost of poor mental health at work:
the costs to employers of mental health illness amounts to a cost per employee of between £1,205 and £1,560 per year – between £33 billion and £42 billion a year (Deloitte 2017). This is made up of absenteeism (cost: £8 billion), presenteeism (cost: £17 billion to £26 billion), and staff turnover (£8 billion).
Having a happy, healthy workforce is something any business can benefit from.