© Dreamstime

At the Bank of England, the UK’s central bank, employees have access to an on-site counsellor. At Goldman Sachs, the investment bank, psychotherapy is available, as is a crisis management team that will take action should an employee feel they are on the verge of a mental breakdown.

Meanwhile, the tax and auditing firm Deloitte UK has established a network of “mental health champions” who are available for informal chats as well as a number of training programmes to help line managers identify the early stages of mental ill-health or depression.

Mental health issues are being taken more seriously, with celebrities including Ruby Wax, the comedian, launching yet another campaign this month for psychological problems to receive the same attention as other illnesses.

But, despite successive attempts to remove the stigma around mental ill-health, comprehensive services such as those provided by the big banks and consulting firms remain a rarity.

The cost to business of failing to take the issue seriously in lost working days and lower productivity is immense.

A UK government report in 2014 calculated 70m days a year are lost due to stress, depression and other mental health conditions.

The cost to the country’s economy is estimated to be £70bn-£100bn annually, equivalent to 4.5 per cent of GDP. The effects are likely to be much larger, given that most staff with poor mental health continue to work but may be less productive, struggling to concentrate or provide good service.

Judith Mohring, lead consultant psychiatrist at the Priory Wellbeing Centre in the City of London, says that although it is “now accepted that you don’t have to be mad to see a psychiatrist,” there is no consistent approach among companies. “It varies from employer to employer and really depends on who is in charge,” she says.

For the big companies that already offer personal development courses and career coaching to employees, it is “not a big leap” to offer psychiatric services, she adds.

At Priory’s clinic in the City of London she sees problems such as anxiety, substance misuse, stress, depression and personality difficulties. “The City has always been stressful,” she says, but globalisation has added to the stress, with the internet eroding boundaries between work and home life.

Patrick Watt, corporate director at Bupa, a healthcare company, says although employers recognise the need for an “open culture” so that mental health matters can be discussed, they often fail to deliver in practice.

Bupa found that although three-quarters of business leaders believed they had encouraged managers to address and support employees’ mental health, only a third of staff agreed their organisations had effective support systems. “There is a clear disconnect between what leaders believe they are doing about mental health in the workplace versus how employees feel,” says Mr Watt.

Despite — or perhaps because of — the increase in publicity given to mental health disorders, the number of reported cases is rising, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).It says more than 40 per cent of employers have noticed a rise in reported mental health problems among employees in the past year. It also found the private sector was particularly poor at supporting employees with mental health problems. About a third offered a counselling service, compared with 70 per cent of public sector organisations.

Ben Willmott, head of policy at the CIPD, says early intervention is key to mental health problems being tackled effectively. “As a nation we’re getting better at opening up the conversation around mental health, but there is still a long way to go,” he says.

In most cases the causes of poor mental health tend to be a combination of problems at and away from work.

If the employee can approach a manager, a strategy can be devised such as a temporary reduction in hours, or flexitime if someone has a problem outside work, such as a relationship breakdown. Alternatively it might involve discussions around how to deal with a spiralling workload or a change to their work.

Aside from the extreme of suicide risk, the impact of poor mental health can be more attritional. Ultimately, stress at work can reduce life expectancy by up to three years, according to a study by Harvard Business School and Stanford University.

Additionally, people who had spent less than 12 years in education were more likely have jobs with unhealthy workplace practices and were most affected by stress. Unsurprisingly, those with the highest educational levels tended to be better equipped to cope with workplace stress and often benefit from less stressful environments.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article