This week sees World Mental Health Day (Weds 10th October), organised by the World Health Organization and designed to raise awareness of mental health issues around the world. But UK employers and occupational health practitioners still have a big job to do to change the “stigma” narrative around mental ill-health and wellbeing.
Employee health and wellbeing – tackling mental ill-health remains a challenge for employers
“I took a lot home without realising it,” Prince William candidly admitted in September when launching a new website and online gateway to mental health tools resources, recalling the emotional and mental toll of his work with the East Anglian Air Ambulance.
The fact no less than the Duke of Cambridge is talking about mental health should be evidence enough of the scale of the challenge facing employers in terms of managing and supporting employees struggling with mental health issues.
The website, The Mental Health at Work Project, is part of the Heads Together programme which works to break down stigma around mental health, and has been created in partnership with the mental health charity Mind.
Regular visitors to this site will know, of course, that mental ill-health is a frequently discussed topic here.
And it is not hard to see why. For example, research by Mind published to coincide with Prince William’s launch estimated that fully half of workers have experienced poor mental health in their current job.
New guidance for managers
Separately, Mind, in September joined forces with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) to launch updated guidance for managers on how to better support mental health at work.
Beyond Prince William, research published in September argues that 42% of UK employees call in sick claiming a physical illness when in reality it’s a mental health issue. Just 15% would tell their boss about a mental health issue, and each employee takes an average 8.4 days off for mental health problems each year, it calculated.
And in August, research by the British Chambers of Commerce and Aviva argued that almost one in three businesses (30%) had seen an increase in the number of employees taking time off to cope with a mental health concern, but only half had consulted an external occupational health service to help those affected.
Just a third (36%) of organisations said they reviewed the individual workloads of stressed employees, while a similar 35% offered them flexible working.
Just a fifth (20%) offered counselling to staff and 18% had training in place for managers to provide better employee support. Nearly half (49%) said they did not access occupational health support for their staff from external providers, with 10% were not aware of any available outside help, the BCC/Aviva study added.
All of this, in a roundabout way, brings us to World Mental Health Day.
This day, organised by the World Health Organization, is designed to highlight and spotlight mental health globally, at home and in the workplace. In particular this year it has a laudable focus on mental health among young people – of course tomorrow’s working populations.
But, while calendar markers such as World Mental Health Day can be a great way to kickstart and focus conversation and activity, the reality is that mental ill-health is an ongoing and growing problem for UK workplaces.
Tools and resources to be proactive
The key, as Optima Health Chief Medical Officer Dr Lucy Wright makes plain, is for managers to recognise that, while mental health is a difficult and challenging thing to tackle, there is still much that proactive and forward-thinking employers can do.
“The focus led by Prince William and, this week, by the World Health Organization is welcome because of the spotlight it puts on mental health generally and the way it helps to break down barriers and stigma.
“But, for employers, the key is making full use of the ever-growing body of tools and resources at your disposal, both to help and support employees directly but also to train and give managers the confidence and resilience to intervene and have those vital conversations in the first place.
“To that end, initiatives such as the prince’s website and the latest Mind/CIPD guidance are all hugely valuable. Equally, making general use of the extensive resources available through Mind and others, such as the Health and Safety Executive’s stress management standards is important.
“Finally, being proactive around mental health is also about investing in tools and resources that can help. This includes EAPs, which can directly support those struggling and offer best practice guidance to managers. Investing in occupational health expertise can also often make a big difference,” she adds.