Breaking the culture of silence on mental health issues

Leading companies are encouraging staff to talk about mental health
Chris O’Sullivan

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The spotlight of this year’s World Mental Health day fell on schizophrenia, a disorder that affects an estimated 26m globally.

Yet, despite progress in recent years to raise awareness of mental health issues, much has still to be done to overcome “a culture of silence”, says Louise Aston, a campaign director at UK charity Business in the Community (BitC).

“Plenty of myths need dispelling,” she says.

Poor mental health not only has an adverse effect on people’s wellbeing, but can shorten life expectancy by as much as 15-20 years, according to a report from Sally Davies, England’s chief medical officer, published this September.

The costs extend beyond sufferers and those close to them.

The report estimated that mental illness costs the UK economy approximately £70bn a year, equivalent to 4.5 per cent of gross domestic product, once absences, productivity losses and benefit liabilities are taken into account.

The report also concluded that mental illness accounted for 70m lost working days in 2013, making it the leading cause of sickness leave in the UK.

“There is clearly a dividend for companies that have a healthy workforce,” says Chris O’Sullivan, policy manager at the Mental Health Foundation, a charity.

Among the companies that recognise the benefits of improving the mental wellbeing of its workers is Mars UK, a subsidiary of the US food and confectionery manufacturer.

The group employs some 4,000 people in the UK.

Julie Digby, the group’s vice-president for people, says that Mars UK revised its approach in 2011.

The prompt for action was the high levels of stress, anxiety and absenteeism among the company’s sales team, she says.

Mars’s experience tallies with recent analysis.

According to the chief medical officer’s report, the number of working days lost to “stress, depression and anxiety” in the UK rose by 24 per cent between 2009 and 2013, while the number of days lost to “serious mental illness” roughly doubled.

Mars initiated a programme of “resilience” training to improve employees’ relationship with stress.

Ms Digby says: “The working world is busy and will continue to remain busy. Our programme is all about being proactive.”

A course – initially attended by sales associates – was designed to ask participants to look at different responses to stress and to re-evaluate how they cope.

Employees learn how to avoid “mind traps” – cognitive mistakes such as avoiding ruminating over a problem – that prove self-defeating.

The classroom training, now offered to all employees as part of a personal development programme, is supported by internal occupational health managers as well as external specialists.

In parallel, managers were taught to spot common early signs of mental ill health in staff, particularly stress and anxiety.

Beyond detection of problems and their possible referral, Ms Digby says line managers have also been coached in how to use “sensitive communication” when discussing mental health with employees.

Within a year of launching the programme, employees reported an improvement in their sleep and stress levels, as well as their performance at work.

Records showed that absenteeism due to mental health issues fell to almost zero, Ms Digby says.

While absenteeism is a concern for employers, it is estimated to account only for one-third of the mental health-related costs borne by businesses, adds Mr O’Sullivan at the Mental Health Foundation.

Two-thirds of costs arise from “presenteeism” – attending work despite illness.

“As you can imagine, people are often concerned about disclosing their anxieties in the workplace,” says Mr O’Sullivan.

Mars UK has established a confidential 24/7 helpline, and also helps staff who require counselling or psychiatric services to get fast-track referrals.

Mars is a member of BitC’s Workwell initiative, which aims to give mental health the same status as physical health at work.

Other Workwell affiliates include BT, Friends Life and Procter & Gamble.

Given the success of the resilience training, Mars has launched a global initiative to improve the wellbeing of its entire workforce, which would in turn be expected to return benefits to the company in terms of worker engagement and productivity.

“It’s a win-win situation,” says Ms Digby.

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