In times of economic hardship, it is often the workforce that bears the brunt of doing more with less. Paul Farmer, chief executive of mental health charity Mind, believes that employers must do more.
Love it or loathe it, most of us spend the greater portion of our lives at work and it should come as no surprise that what we experience every day in the office, workshop or on the factory floor can have an enormous impact on our wellbeing. Anyone who has spent time in a company where there is poor management, difficult communication, excessive workloads or even bullying will know how demoralising these issues are when they affect your work day in, day out. Likewise, those of us with a good employer can feel that their job contributes to their satisfaction with life.
While for some employers the idea of satisfied employees seems like an add-on to business needs, the mood and culture of the workplace couldn’t, in fact, be more crucial. Looking after your employees is a business responsibility, and has a huge impact on the productivity of staff, sickness absence levels, costs and profits of an organisation.
Right now, one worker in six experiences depression or anxiety at a time when the issue of workplace mental health has never been more pertinent. In these times of economic hardship, companies are under increasing pressure to stretch resources and boost productivity, and these strains are being passed on to staff. Mind’s new research for its mental-health-at-work campaign, “Taking care of business”, draws on the experiences of 2,000 workers and shows that two-thirds of employees feel under more pressure than ever before, while four in 10 say that they are currently stressed or very stressed by their jobs.
|Paul Farmer, chief executive of mental health charity Mind|
For employers, this should be a major concern. However, a wealth of research has shown that many employers aren’t even aware of the extent of the problem, and seven in 10 have no mental health policy. For employees, workplace mental health remains the elephant in the room – staff can’t disclose their mental ill health to their employers for fear of the consequences, employers don’t acknowledge the scale of the issue and all the while poor mental health and wellbeing are draining the economy of billions of pounds every year.
Creating a supportive environment
It is clear that the first step is creating an open, supportive environment where employees can speak up about their stress and mental health problems, but in many workplaces it is “taboo” and people are terrified of bringing it up. Mind’s research found that employees not only feared they would be perceived as weaker than others for mentioning stress, but that they would be put first in line for redundancy in an organisational shake-up. This fear is not unsubstantiated – Mind found that of those who disclosed mental distress to their employer, a staggering one in five have either been sacked or forced to quit.
One individual reported being forced by her manager to stay at home as soon as they learned of her mental health problems – going against medical advice and her own wishes. It was simply easier for the employer to keep her out of the office for months on full salary than to accommodate her minimal needs and allow her to continue as a high-performing member of staff. Another employee talked of rumours spreading through the office that she had “gone mad”. This kind of treatment and discrimination is based on ignorance and misunderstanding, and has no place in a modern workplace.
But while many of us can see that this kind of treatment shouldn’t be acceptable, we aren’t always aware of what it costs our businesses. Poor mental health and wellbeing costs British industry £1,035 per employee, or £26 billion per year. However, businesses who start the dialogue around mental health at work and support their staff can save one-third of these costs – £8 billion per year across the industry.
Some may argue that organisational changes cost money and budgets are tight. However, most good wellbeing practices don’t require any expenditure – small steps, such as ensuring staff take a lunch break, have an opportunity to talk to their managers and where possible the opportunity to work flexible hours, can make a huge difference.
Now is the time for employers to stand up and take action, supporting staff wellbeing and in turn getting the best performance from their employees. Mind is urging all organisations, regardless of size, to take simple steps to create an open and supportive environment. Communication is the key – only by encouraging openness around mental health will we ever eliminate discrimination and create successful, healthy workplaces for us all.
Paul Farmer is chief executive of Mind. For more information on making your workplace mentally healthy, go to www.mind.org.uk/work.