Overcoming mental health taboos could save billions

Head to head, with David Webb of Acas’ workplace advice team

What does ‘mental health’ mean?

The cognitive and emotional state in which we tackle the normal stresses of everyday life. But, of course, this can vary. One week, we may feel positive about ourselves and enjoy our work, but the next we might feel “a bit down” and less productive or committed. Sometimes, a downturn in our mental health can be triggered by an incident at work or home through, for example, bullying or bereavement. And it should come as no surprise that there is a close link between the performance of our economy and our overall mental wellbeing.How big a problem is it?

At any one time, one worker in six will be affected by some kind of mental ill-health condition – that’s almost 5m of Britain’s 29m workers. Mental health problems – which, of course, are not all work-related – cost on average £1,035 for every employee in the workforce. That adds up to around £30bn every year, mostly in lost production through staff being off work ill or turning up when unwell and not performing at their best. A Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development study found: 37 per cent of workers with poor mental health were more likely to get into conflict with colleagues; 57 per cent found it harder to juggle multiple tasks; 80 per cent found it difficult to concentrate; 62 per cent took longer to handle tasks; and 50 per cent were potentially less patient with customers. The cost also includes having to replace staff who leave because of mental ill-health.Are businesses aware – or do they avoid the subject?

Increasingly, more employers are becoming aware of the importance of effectively managing mental health at work, but they are still in the minority. There is a reluctance to deal with it because people feel uncomfortable talking about it – mental ill-health is still something of a taboo. Also, having the conversation can be difficult because the matter is sensitive and the key facts can be hard to pin down. Put all that together, and many managers think it’s easier to ignore the problem.Can problems be prevented?

Yes. The key is for employers to develop a culture in their organisations where managers gain awareness and understanding of mental health in the workplace. They need to be able to spot early the signs of mental ill-health, have that difficult conversation with the employee and work out what practical steps can be taken. It is also important that employees should be equally aware of the culture and feel comfortable disclosing a condition to their manager. This is all about breaking down the taboo and accepting that mental health is really just part of our overall health. Many managers already possess some of the necessary skills, such as having difficult conversations, but they need training in areas such as knowing when to intervene and how far to get involved. What can be done to resolve problems once they exist?

Many factors influence our mental health. However, managers should focus on factors they can control. For example, they should review workloads, work variety, work relationships and company communication, and how these may positively or negatively affect employees. They should also help employees to develop coping strategies so they can manage their own mental health. Many other factors are outside a manager’s influence or remit, such as childhood experiences, family relationships or addiction problems. In these situations, it may be better to refer an employee to mental health at work specialists such as the NHS’s Mindful Employer www.mindfulemployer.netWhat help is available?

Workplace relations expert Acas has teamed up with Mindful Employer to produce Acas’s first guide, online and as a printed booklet, and training programme on practical steps to improve management of mental health at work. Potential benefits include cutting the £30bn bill by a third. The Acas website guide and training give full information.

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