Why ignoring mental health is bad for business (and what you can do about it)

You probably already know the statistic: one in four of us will experience poor mental health at some stage in our lives.

Even now, with a more open dialogue around the subject, the full impact of mental health is commonly underestimated. We often think about mental health as a purely individual struggle; however, beyond this, there are much wider implications for society that we can’t afford to ignore.

Work and wellbeing

The average adult spends roughly one-third of their lives at work. It’s hardly surprising then that according to the Mental Health at Work 2018 Report, 61% of employees say they have experienced mental health issues due to work or where work was a related factor. With a recent TUC analysis reporting that Brits work the longest hours in the EU, it’s easy to see why our work life has such a significant bearing on our mental state – and why we’re becoming a nation overwhelmed by stress.

Work can be great for our mental health; however, according to the World Health Organisation, a negative working environment can lead to physical and mental health problems and is also likely to perpetuate existing difficulties. The association between work and wellbeing is becoming increasingly obvious; despite this, the Stevenson/Farmer review of mental health and employers reveals that, incredibly, only 39% of organisations have policies or systems in place to support employees with common mental health conditions and only 24% of managers have received training on mental health issues.

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of employees have experienced work-related mental health issues

Bad for business

Finding ways (and the time) to actively support employees’ mental health is not only a moral obligation; it makes smart business sense. For employers, turning a blind eye to mental health can lead to disengaged employees, higher rates of absence, and mistakes being made, all of which have a direct effect on productivity and your bottom line.

Alarmingly, mental health problems in the workplace cost the UK economy approximately £70 billion each year. In fact, poor mental health is now the number one cause of staff absences in the UK, resulting in a staggering 91 million work days lost. According to the Centre for Mental Health, mental-health-related absenteeism costs the economy £8.4 billion per annum, while presenteeism – employees who attempt to work through their illness – costs a whopping £15.1 billion. In this way, mental health is very much a business issue.

Conversely, there are tangible benefits of investing in employees’ mental health. Signaling to employees that you care about their wellbeing is likely to improve retention and therefore reduce the high costs associated with replacing staff. What’s more, according to one study, for every £1 employers invest in mental health training programmes, they can see a return of up to £10. This statistic alone is enough to make any responsible employer sit up and take notice.

working days lost due to poor mental health

6 ways you can manage mental health effectively as an employer

Fortunately, poor mental health is often preventable, and recovery is possible in many cases. There are a number of practical steps you can take as employer to help your employees and your business to thrive.

1. Promote an open-door policy

Unfortunately, a survey by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) has indicated that mental health remains a “taboo” subject in the workplace. The report highlights that just one in ten employees feel comfortable taking to their line manager about a mental health condition.

It’s therefore important to have clear and well-defined communication channels and to create a workplace culture where an employee feels that they can ask for support without being ridiculed, subjected to unfair treatment or marginalised.

Some employees may feel embarrassed or fear that struggling with their mental health will be seen as sign of weakness and will be reluctant to open up. However, by opening the conversation surrounding mental health and showing that you are sympathetic and willing to listen, you can encourage positive action and minimise the risks of employees taking long absences or deciding to leave their job. (Worryingly, an article by the BBC reports that mental health causes up to 300,000 people to lose their jobs each year, with lack of support and anxiety over office gossip cited as common reasons for feeling pushed out).

Remember, managers are at the forefront of creating a supportive environment – one in which employees feel able to ask for help when it’s needed. It’s vital to ensure that managers openly promote the importance of mental health and that they make it clear to employees that issues surrounding mental health will be taken seriously.

2. Carry out return to work interviews

If an employee takes frequent, short-term absences, carrying out a return to work interview will provide an opportunity to explore the reasons for and nature of the absence. It will also allow you to check how the employee is feeling and confirm that they feel fit to return to their role. If there are signs that the employee is suffering from a mental health condition, you should explore what practical steps can be taken to assist them.

You may wish to structure the conversation as follows:

  • Ask the employee what the reason for their absence was.
  • If the absence was due to stress, ask them what may be causing that stress. This may be entirely work-related or exacerbated by work.
  • If the stress is caused by work, consider whether or not it’s possible to alleviate that stress. For example, if they feel they have too much on their plate, you could consider ways to reduce their workload.
  • If the stress is caused by other factors, ask whether there is anything that you can do to help.
capability or conduct

3. Watch out for the signs

It’s always a good idea to have regular one-to-one meetings or conversations with employees to find out how they’re doing, both in their role and in a more general sense. By doing so, and by keeping an eye on changes in behaviour, you may be able to pick up on certain red flags. 

For example, you may notice that they’re smoking more, their appetite has changed, they’re making uncharacteristic mistakes, they seem more withdrawn, or they’re reacting differently to people or certain situations. Any of these should prompt a conversation, which you should approach in a tactful and supportive way.

Of course, not all conditions have obvious warning signs, which is why it’s important to hold frequent meetings and create an environment where employees feel able to approach their managers for support.

4. Tackle issues early

Line managers should be trained to spot early warning signs and take steps to prevent issues from escalating. This may involve talking to the employee in private, explaining what you have noticed and asking how they are feeling. The issue may or may not be mental health related, but an open conversation should allow you to get to the bottom of what’s going on and identify appropriate next steps.

If the employee does disclose a mental health condition, you should seek to get a better understanding of how the condition affects them and what adjustments can be made within the work environment to support them. It may be useful to create an action plan, which looks at what triggers the employee’s condition, how it can be minimised at work and what to do if they are very unwell.

If they insist there is no problem, you should keep an eye on them and make them aware that they can come and speak to you at any time.

Remember the Equality Act

Under the Equality Act, a worker will be considered ‘disabled’ if they can show that they suffer from a long-term physical or mental impairment which has a substantial effect on their ability to carry out their day-to-day activities.

Employers are required to make reasonable adjustments for workers with disabilities, or physical or mental health conditions, to ensure they aren’t substantially disadvantaged when carrying out their role. For example, if an employee suffers from anxiety and panic attacks, you could consider flexible working arrangements, allowing them to work in a quieter area, or providing a walled partition if working in an open-plan office is affecting their ability to concentrate and focus on tasks.

5. Stay connected during periods of absence

If short-term sickness evolves into longer-term absence, it’s important to keep lines of communication open. Maintaining regular contact with the employee will keep you informed of their progress and determine whether there is anything you can do to assist them back to work, such as a phased return. If a return doesn’t look likely in the near future, plans can be made for temporary cover or to distribute the workload to others in the team. (Taking advice from an Employment Law expert is hugely beneficial at this stage, as this will allow you to keep business running smoothly while ensuring you don’t fall foul of the Equality Act).

However, while it’s important that the employee must not feel cut off by their manager, equally they should not feel harassed by frequent calls or visits. If an employee is suffering from anxiety or stress, the last thing you want is for your contact to exacerbate their condition and prolong their recovery, so you should think carefully about the nature of the contact and its urgency. Remember, while you may see absence as a cost, not allowing employees to take the time they need to recover can be just as damaging for all involved.

Finally, if mental health is being negatively affected by work, you should explore with the employee how further absences may be prevented. This may involve assessing their workload, providing training or mentoring, or addressing working relationships.

6. Invest in training

Mental health awareness training is often not treated with the same level of importance as other forms of health and safety or absence management training – possibly in part due to the stigma that still persists, and possibly because mental health issues often go under the radar. However, without proper training, managers may find it much harder to identify issues within their teams and miss opportunities for early intervention.

Investing in mental health training will enable managers to recognise and effectively manage mental health issues among their staff. Importantly, enrolling managers on mental health awareness courses will allow them to approach issues related to employee mental health more confidently and equip them with practical solutions that will not only support employee wellbeing but also contribute to reduced absence rates and better productivity.

Need support?

If you’re facing an issue related to an employee’s mental health, our HR and Employment Law Advisers can provide pragmatic advice on handling sensitive situations within the confines of the law and in a way that ensures minimum disruption to your business.

Looking for mental health training?

Our one-day mental health awareness course for team leaders, line managers and directors provides a general overview of mental health in the workplace, from recognising symptoms to the support options available, and is delivered exclusively to you at your premises. For more information, call 0345 226 8393.