Richard Martin was a partner at a City law firm when, in 2011, he broke down and began to experience debilitating panic attacks.

“At the start I had no ability to think about work or about a return to work”, he says. It was difficult just to “interact with those around me without being terrified” he continues. “The phone ringing or the postman delivering letters was enough to send me into panic.”

Keeping people mentally fit at work, rather than merely treating their symptoms, is one of the most progressive approaches an employer can take, he says, noting “work is a hugely important contributor to our sense of purpose and self esteem”.

Promoting good mental health as part of standard employment practice is long overdue. The WHO believes depression will become the world’s second most important cause of disability by 2020.

While offering gym membership discounts may be an easy (albeit not always effective) way to keep staff physically fit, the equivalents for mental health are not so well known. That is not to say, however, that none exist.

Linklaters, the law firm, co-founded the City Mental Health Alliance and recently ran a mental health week offering staff a programme of events. These included group discussions about dealing with pressure, with positive endorsement from a senior facilitator giving everyone permission to do what they find most helpful, be it eating well, exercising or taking regular breaks.

Meanwhile, National Grid, the power company, has reoriented its occupational health provision from being “a crisis management process” to become a “proactive service [to] access advice much earlier around things like debt, relationships, child support and career coaching”, says Andy Buxton, its health and wellbeing manager.

The company uses ‘The Five Ways to Wellbeing’, an approach designed by the New Economics Foundation: ‘Connect; be active; take notice; keep learning; give’. It works much in the same way as the ‘five-a-day’ healthy eating message.

Such messaging, however, is only effective if managers are trained in mental health awareness and understand why it is necessary.

As Cary Cooper of Lancaster University explains: “Companies can have all the wellbeing professionals, occupational health officers, HR campaigns . . . but the line managers in many cases are not up to it. We need more personal and interpersonal-skilled line managers, and we do not have them.”

Data bear this out. The Time To Change campaign group is led by the charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness. Its most recent survey shows that 49 per cent of respondents would feel uncomfortable talking to an employer about their own mental health. Not surprising, given that 94 per cent of business leaders recently polled by Bupa admitted to prejudice in their organisation concerning people with mental health problems.

Mental health “first aid” training could change this. Mr Martin describes it as a way to train employees and managers “as you would do first aiders for physical issues – recognising there is an issue, approaching it rather than walking away, making the situation safe, and holding the position until appropriate professional help is available”.

Organisations and “first aiders” are accredited by Mental Health First Aid England, a community interest company. Norton Rose Fulbright, the global legal practice, began by training 37 staff and is now looking to roll this out internationally, says Andrew McEachern, global director of people and development. “Mental Health First Aid teaches people to recognise and understand the warning signs of mental illness and to support people with mental health issues . . . involving real life scenarios and situation-based training.”

At National Grid some 300 mental health “first aiders” are now accredited in the hope that this will help create a culture that is aware of the importance and fragility of mental health.

But it is early days in terms of the general attitude, says Mr Martin, suggesting the evolving approach towards mental health has a precedent in cancer. “Thirty years ago you could not mention the c-word. Now it is OK . . . as more people talk about [mental health], the more you become aware of how common it is, which then makes it easier for others.”

As for Mr Martin himself, he now works at consultancy Byrne Dean. Here, the ringing of his telephone no longer heralds a panic attack, but the chance to advise others on employee health and wellbeing.

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Occupations tough on mental health

1. Front-line public sector workers
A 2005 study into work-based stress ranked the ambulance service, teaching, social services, prison and police work among the most stressful professions.

2. Middle managers
Research finds that junior staff and directors of companies are far happier than the level in-between.

3. City professions
Relative job security and high pay count in favour of lawyers, bankers and accountants, but issues of work-life balance are “consistently damaging”.

4. Freelancing
Traditionally, job satisfaction is high among the self-employed. But since the recession, taking on extra work to stay afloat and loneliness are common burdens.

5. Unemployment
Psychologically, however, almost any job is still better than none at all. Economic inactivity is strongly associated with the increased risk of developing mental health problems.

Sources: HSE, Line Managers’ Resource; Journal of Managerial Psychology, Johnson et al; Prof Cary Cooper

This is the final piece in a three-part workplace mental health series
Part one: We need to talk about mental health
Part two: Staff groups bring mental wellbeing into open

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Letter in response to this report:

Keep the mind healthy – switch it away from stress / From Peter Nicholls

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