On Monday I had the privilege of being asked to lead a session on mental health in the workplace for the TruMunity Unconference in London, a recruitment event for HR leaders and recruitment professionals with informality and learning at its heart.
When thinking about what to talk about, I kept coming back to the role business has to play in tackling the mental health crisis the UK faces.
A study into wellbeing in the workplace recently estimated that around 97 million work days are lost each year in the UK to mental health issues.
Imagine the impact of that figure for a moment. It equates to more than a quarter of a million years. And if you’re having trouble processing that, it’s around 50,000 years longer than we’ve been on the earth.
A separate piece of research estimates that of all the absence certificates issued by GPs each year, a third relate to one form of mental health condition or another.
Whilst I find the numbers eye-wateringly high, I’m not exactly surprised. The workplace has long been a toxic environment and the only really bewildering thing is that as a society we haven’t yet got to grips with it.
Much of that is to do with the almost glacial speed at which business has come to understand that mental health isn’t a minority issue and never has been. In fact, a great many companies still struggle with the notion that mental wellbeing affects every person on the payroll.
It may have been more convenient, back in the day, to think that poor mental health was limited to emotionally catastrophic conditions like catatonic depression, schizophrenia and psychosis, but a bit like the Ford Capri and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum!, those days are long gone.
The commercial cost of poor mental health in the workplace is simply staggering, and it goes far beyond the lost working days I talked about at the start of this article, because mental health materially affects the culture of business, not just the person dealing with the condition.
If a business routinely fails to provide the correct framework of support and care for its people, or fails to build that framework into its values, then the likely outcome of that is a staff base which is more susceptible to poor mental health. When those people aren’t given the support they need, the perception of others will be of an organisation that doesn’t value its employees. Goodwill erodes. Morale tanks. Productivity declines. Margins reduce. Profits fall. Shareholders become restless. The chain reaction is spectacular, but destructive.
Often the reluctance of business to invest in mental wellbeing is because it sees common conditions, like stress and anxiety, as ‘soft’ issues. Conditions like shingles or flu present with physical symptoms which are tangible and therefore a sympathetic response – ‘take a few days off’ – is easy to process, even if the absence is inconvenient.
But except in extreme cases, stress and anxiety are invisible – often, it has to be said, to the person struggling with them as well as to their colleagues or employer. I treat many people who have been battling stress for years before something triggers a significant acceleration and they become no longer able to cope.
And although commerce and industry has, as a whole, become much better at responding constructively to employees struggling with poor mental health, there are still too many unreconstructed employers out there whose reaction to an employee with a mental health issue is the equivalent of telling them to ‘man up’.
There’s also a need to acknowledge the fact that there is a shame factor at play here, too. For an employee working in a company that doesn’t take mental health seriously, there are all kinds of barriers to sharing a problem with someone higher up the corporate food chain because of the perceived risk of the irreversible damage that will do to their reputation and career prospects.
That means organisations need to not only talk the talk, but also walk the walk. By leading from the front on mental health care in the workplace and actually being seen to be doing the right thing, the chances are that an issue will be addressed properly and at an earlier stage, before it reaches crisis point.
If you run a business or are a senior member of the management team in your organisation, you should ask yourself what your policies and processes are when it comes to dealing with mental health, because there’s a good chance your bottom line is only as good as they are.