It may seem insensitive to see the impact of mental health issues in purely monetary terms, but conditions such as stress, anxiety and depression could be costing UK business up to £9bn a year because of sickness absence and reduced productivity, according to a leading charity.
The Shaw Trust, a body that provides training and work opportunities for people who are disadvantaged in the labour market due to disability, ill health or other social circumstances, says this is in part due to a dearth of successful workplace initiatives to deal with such problems.
In fact, its survey of more than 500 companies, conducted earlier this month, found that only 3% of directors think their company has a policy that can effectively deal with stress and mental illness at work.
What to do
Organisations that are having some success in this area are generally attacking the issue on four fronts, says the charity’s managing director Tim Cooper.
First, there must be a general awareness within the organisation – from the boardroom to the office floor – that stress and depression are real issues not to be ignored. Training and corporate communications are vital in creating a culture where these subjects can be openly discussed, says Cooper.
Second, businesses that have worked at creating a healthy workplace are much less likely to find stress a real problem. Cooper says wider policies, designed to promote work-life balance and cut out bullying, can significantly reduce anxiety among employees.
“Conflict and harassment from line managers is one of the biggest causes of stress,” he says.
The third step companies should take is to set up early warning systems that will alert line managers when employees are feeling stressed and unable to cope.
At telecoms giant BT, diversity manager Sally Ward says the company has installed an online stress management toolkit, which enables employees to run through a number of questions about stress and their feelings from the privacy of their own PCs.
“However much you try to create trust between line managers and employees, some things are difficult to talk about. By going online, much of the emotion of the issue is taken out,” she says.
Depending on the responses given, the system will give a green, amber or red light to signify the level of health risk the employee is exposed to.
Amber and red readings will immediately alert line managers, who have all been trained for conversations in this area, to approach the employee and try get to the bottom of the issue before the problem leads to the employee having to take substantial time off work.
Providing the right kind of support is Cooper’s fourth requirement. At HSBC, diversity manager Elaine Bromberg says the company has put in place a number of initiatives designed to assist staff in dealing with mental health difficulties.
An HR call centre number is available to both employees and line managers, who can be directed through to occupational health or employee relations experts if they want to discuss their difficulties.
A free counselling service, called Open Line, is also offered to all staff and their families, while in some areas of the business where stress is a problem – such as the call centres – the company is running a number of occupational health clinics to publicise the issue and suggest ways to combat mental health difficulties.
“We recognise that stress as a real issue and our policies are aimed at nipping it in the bud,” says Bromberg. “Employers don’t realise the cost to their business of not managing stress effectively.”