Why mental health at work matters
There is a clear business case for doing something about mental health in the workplace, because if employers don’t, they can have a real problem with absenteeism. But it's a problem companies do not always handle well. Emma Jacobs discusses what can be done to improve this, with Jaan Madan of Mental Health First Aid England and Nigel Jones, chair of the City of London Mental Health Alliance.
Presented by Emma Jacobs and produced by Fiona Symon
From the Financial Times in London, I'm Emma Jacobs, and this is FT News. There is a very clear business case for doing something about mental health in the workplace. Because if employers don't, they can have a real problem with absenteeism. But I know from writing about the topic for the work and career section of the FT that I often get discrete emails from readers saying how difficult an issue this is and that companies do not always handle it well.
With me on the line to discuss this is Jaan Madan, head of Mental Health First Aid England's in-house consultancy team and Nigel Jones, partner at Linklaters and chair at the City of London Mental Health Alliance. Nigel, if we could start with you and your work in City Mental Health Alliance, could you tell me a bit about it and why it's been established?
Yes. We created the City Mental Health Alliance five years ago to make the City of London a healthier place in which to work. And we're doing that by trying to reduce stigma, improve the literacy around mental health, and identify practical steps that businesses based in the City of London, primarily larger businesses, can take to help people remain well.
And the key aspect of that, we've found, is engaging with senior leaders of these City-based businesses and providing a forum in which they can meet to discuss the importance of mental health to their businesses and how they can learn from each other and cooperate with each other to improve things.
And talking to senior leaders, when they talk about their own problems with mental health, how does that spread out throughout the employers and employees?
Senior leaders telling their own story when they have one, when people, as is often the case, have had a mental health issue, serious, or in some cases less serious, or they have experienced mental ill health challenges in their family-- we've had certain people talking about the impact on them and their businesses or their spouses taking their own lives. Those are the most powerful ways we've found of demonstrating to the people in those organisations that this is an issue that's taken seriously right from the top.
And again, another message we have learned from our journey over the last five years is that unless there is genuine buy-in from the top, both in actions as well as words, it's very difficult for anybody in the organisation, whether it's HR or anybody else, actually to make a difference.
And Jaan, could you tell me a bit more about Mental Health First Aid as well?
Certainly. Mental Health First Aid England is a training organisation. We're celebrating our 10-year anniversary this year. We train our individuals to become mental health first-aiders or to gain mental health first aid skills to increase mental health literacy of the general population. Our goal is to reach one in 10 of the population to have some kind of mental health first aid skills and understanding to be able to not only improve their own well-being, but to support those of their friends, family members, community, and obviously workplaces as well.
We train up mental health first aid instructors. We have a seven-day programme which is accredited by the Royal Society of Public Health. And we have around 1,200 of those instructors in England.
And we also train up people with the in-house solutions as well. So we work with organisations to deliver different types of mental health first aid training in those organisations. And overall we've trained up-- there's around 2 million people trained up around the world. And in England, we've trained up just over 210,000 people with mental health first aid skills.
And is that across organisations? Is that up and down the hierarchy, so to speak?
I think it's really interesting what Nigel's saying around senior leaders talking about their own experiences and also having the action as well as the words. And I think one of the things that we've found the same is that working with an organisation to really create the whole organisational change, which is the approach that we take, you need to have senior leadership buy-in. You need to have the sponsorship. You need to have the commitment to the agenda.
And sometimes that takes people understanding not only the human side of things, but also the business case. So an understanding of the impact that's going on in the organisation if well-being and mental health aren't taken seriously and aren't up there is a boardroom issue as well.
But I think it's just as important to make sure that not only senior leaders are out there waving the flag, but also everyone across the organisation is given the opportunity to engage in some kind of mental health first aid training or similar. We know the BITC report, for example, that recently came out talks about the need to line managers to be trained up.
And we've known that for some time, that line managers are a key part. So they clearly have a role to play. And quite often, line managers can find themselves in the middle of the situation with the pressures from senior leaders above and their staff below. And just as important as well with people on the shop floor, so to speak.
So I think it's really important that when you're looking for that whole organisational change, that actually you take some time. You engage with other organisations that are already involved in the agenda. You find out some of the best practises out there. And you can take a far more strategic approach, which will give you the end results you're looking for.
Nigel, do you think that-- I mean, you've been at Linklaters for quite a few years.
30. I mean, do you think that these issues have got worse since you've been working, or is there just greater awareness?
Yes, there is greater awareness. And whether that is the reason for people perceiving there to be more stress rather than there actually being more stress I think is a fascinating question on which none of that research could be undertaken. I think the answer is it's a bit of both.
When I started here 31 years ago, it was stressful in many respects, including because one had to stay possibly all night waiting for a fax to come through which may never have come through. One couldn't go home, have dinner with one's children, and then take a call later on your mobile phone or receive a message on your email on your iPhone, because none of those technologies existed.
Now the boundaries have gone, which gives greater freedom but also, in many ways, creates greater stress. So I think many people would say it is much more stressful now. And in a sense, whatever the answer, we know that a degree of stress is helpful to help all of us keep focused. Too much stress over a prolonged period can create difficulty.
So whatever the answer, we know we need to do more and can do more to create a healthier work environment. And we can all become better at spotting changes in the behaviours of our colleagues which suggest that they might like to talk to somebody, understanding how to have those conversations, and, if necessary, signposting people to appropriate experts for help.
I think that there's a lot that gets burdened on line managers. I mean, they often make the difference between you staying or leaving your job. I mean, is not your experience of a senior leader necessity that will affect your day-to-day job. But it will be your line manager.
But then they also have to be the ones that have to identify your mental health problems. Is there any support for line managers? I often think, not being one myself, that they get a kind of raw deal out of all of this. They're sort of at fault for everything in a way.
In most law firms, the term line manager doesn't formally exist. And actually, that doesn't mean there aren't any. That mean everybody, in effect, is one. Because from a very junior level in whichever part of a law firm one works, one is likely to have people in a team around you. And therefore you take on a responsibility of some sort.
And yes, you're right. That comes with challenges, but also fantastic opportunities. If you are trained in the skills that are helpful in how to lead a team, which includes understanding psychology, to some extent, then it can be enormously beneficial.
So yes, it's a responsibility. You might call it a burden. But it also, with appropriate training, can become a very powerful incentive and tool to help everybody progress through their careers.
Jaan, I mean obviously it's good to look after the well-being of your employees. But is there a kind of business case as well to looking out for mental health?
Yes, definitely. There's a lot of research out there that shows you that it's a good agenda to engage with. Centre for Mental Health recently released a report 10 years on, took them at just under GB 35 billion was the price tag around staff turnover, reduced productivity at work, and sickness absence all combined.
We know that there is around 15.8 million days of sickness absence caused by mental health issues in the UK last year. The numbers keep stacking up in terms of presenteeism as well. So the idea that I'm not particularly well or I'm not functioning at my best, but I'm so coming to work because the fear or the stigma around talking about mental health may be too much, or the self-stigma that I'm giving. So I'm cleaning up, being productive even though I'm sat at my desk or involved in my work.
So there's an enormous amount of a business case out there that can show employers that this is really an agenda to engage in from a business perspective. But I think also organisations are realising that to draw down the talent, to retain staff, to make sure that your colleagues and your workforce that are with you are fully engaged in the organisation's values and commitment to their productivity and profit going forward, that actually it makes business sense to create that environment, that culture which maximises the potential of every individual in there.
What are some of those signs that managers might look out for in their employees?
I think the easiest thing to say is change. So for any of us, if we notice a change in someone that we have some understanding of their behaviors and their patterns, then that's something that we can pick up a conversation for. I think it's really important to understand that there's fantastic organisations out there working to this agenda. And I think it would be impossible to train anybody up to have the counselling skills or any of those other very professional skills.
But what we can train people in quite a short period of time is to have the competence to have the conversation. And some of those signs and symptoms are really just talking about change in behaviour and being able to put someone's work to one side for a moment and say, I've noticed this about you. How are you-- and to have the confidence to then have a structured conversation with them and signpost them on. That's really what you're looking for.
Whether that's people coming in early, staying in late, missing their goals and deadlines, KPIs slipping, maybe they're withdrawing, maybe they're engaging more-- whatever it may be. But it's all around change.
I mean, I think one of the other problems with people that suffer stress or anxiety is that they worry that they will be seen as somebody that's anxious and can't take on too much work or can't take on difficult projects. But that's not necessarily the case, is it? They might recover and be completely fine for the next challenge, say. Is that right?
I'd say one of the places that we start when we're talking to people is getting people to accept the fact actually, we all have mental health. And in the same way we have physical health, we all have mental health. And our physical health fluctuates throughout the day, throughout the week, the month, our lifetimes. And our mental health does the same as well.
So the idea and concept of recovery is a really empowering one for a lot of people, the idea that actually at one part of my life, I may feel a particular way, but there's no reason why maybe some talking therapy, maybe some slight adjustments in lifestyle, maybe with some medication, whatever it is that's needed, and some professional support, those symptoms I'm experiencing can move on. Or I can learn to live with them and adapt my life accordingly.
So I think it's very important that you get those simple messages out there, that actually your well-being will move and will change with you throughout your life, that there are some risk factors that are out there, but there's also an enormous amount we can do to protect ourselves as well in terms of the lifestyle choices we make but also the situations we choose to put ourselves in as well.
And I think that in itself helps break down some of the stigma. I think one of the biggest barriers, really, is self-stigma. We all have a critical voice. But sometimes, even if we're working in organisations that have wholeheartedly embraced the idea of well-being, we may well find ourselves self-stigmatizing and not wanting to put our hands up.
So it surrounds creating the opportunities for people to find safe spaces and safe people to come and talk to, but also to have the reinforced values of an organisation saying that our well-being here isn't seen as static, that actually we bring our whole selves to work, and that we trust in the journey, that we'll go with you, because we know that everyone has qualities that they will bring.
Well, thank you both for talking on this issue. Thanks, Nigel, and thanks to Jaan.
Thank you very much.
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