Mental ill health and the workplace – translating awareness into action

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Preventing mental ill health workplace support from becoming just another employer “box-ticking” exercise was a key focus at October’s “MAD World” Summit. Ashleigh Webber reports.

Mental ill health has become one of the biggest workplace health challenges in recent years, as organisations wake up to the fact that conditions such as stress, depression, anxiety cost the economy almost £3.5bn per year and are responsible for the loss of 72 million working days, according to the Centre for Mental Health.

While employers are undoubtedly aware of mental ill health as an issue and the effect it can have on individuals both inside and outside of work, has this awareness translated into action and are employers doing enough to support workers with poor mental health?

This was a key focus of the “MAD World Summit” in London in October, which brought together occupational health, HR and senior business leaders to share best practice on how organisations can maintain momentum in their mental wellbeing agendas and, perhaps more importantly, prevent it from being treated as just another box-ticking exercise.

Ian Stuart, group managing director and chief executive officer at HSBC UK, kicked off the summit by reminding delegates that their “privileged” positions in their organisations meant they were best placed to change cultures and remove the “stigma” sometimes attached to conversations about mental health in the workplace.

“Rule number one is you need to create the right environment for people to open up about their mental health worries, create that culture of care where people are able to speak up and feel safe. How you behave about this is how your people will behave around it too,” he said.

Business leaders needed to be the people who initiated conversations about mental health to show their workforces that it was acceptable to seek help at work, urged Stuart.

“Unless I start to tell stories then others won’t tell their story,” he said. “I’ve got four children and two have special needs and, being completely honest, I couldn’t talk about it and I didn’t want to talk about it… but it’s amazing that when I started to talk about [things going on at home] then other people did.

“If you don’t create a safe environment, people are not going to speak up. They’re not going to talk about the pressures in their life.”

Importance of line manager support

This sentiment was echoed by Dame Carol Black, who drew attention to the findings of last year’s Britain’s Healthiest Workplace study, which revealed employees were more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and sleep problems if they did not feel supported by their line manager.

She said employers seemed happy to put interventions such as yoga, mindfulness training and resilience courses in place, but argued that many of these did not address the root causes of poor mental health or were not being taken up by the people who might benefit most from them.

“Last year we all came away [from the MAD World Summit 2018] intending to do something about this and be practical… but often you don’t put in the essential enablers,” said Dame Carol.

“It’s not going to be the pilates or mindfulness – and often you put them in but you don’t really know who needs them the most and don’t really know the data around them. And how many of your people are aware of the good things you’re putting in, let alone how many of them take them up?”

“This is an ongoing process of supporting managers, who goodness knows have got a lot of stressors, getting them to be capable enough to look after the people who report to them and recognise when they are not so well. We don’t want them to be psychologists or psychiatrists, but we want them to have that understanding that someone in their team is not as well as they should be.”

Dame Carol said it was crucial that organisations put in place the “essentials” – such as supportive leadership and line manager awareness – before they implemented the “nice to have” benefits. And once such benefits were in place, employers need to regularly monitor their use, who is taking them up and whether they are having the desired effect.

She asked: “Do you know the data? Do you know the extent of the problem? And which staff are most at risk – is it the young or older staff? The women or men? Where could you make the biggest difference?

“Organisations put in all kinds of what seem to be useful interventions – it could be informational leaflets, it could be mindfulness, it might be mental health first aid, resilience or anti-stress training, volunteering, line manager capability, coaching, etc. People do these things with the very best intentions but do they know which ones make the most difference and who uses them?

“We haven’t got an evidence base for a lot of these and a think we should acknowledge that. We do what is perfectly reasonable to do and what we think is best practice, what other organisations have found useful, but it’s hard to do the proper trials.”

Lack of take-up of interventions

Dame Carol said the Britain’s Healthiest Workplace research showed only 3% of employees accessed workplace health interventions. Younger employees, especially, tended to avoid them and preferred to seek help for a mental health concern from their family, friends or their GP over their employer or a service provided by their employer.

The most popular interventions as reported by the survey’s respondents included massage and relaxation, mental health training, resilience training and charity days.

Once a company had researched which interventions would best serve their employees and these were implemented, Dame Carol said staff needed to be constantly reminded of what was in place to support their mental wellbeing, otherwise these services would not be taken up.

“When you are going to put these things in then please try to put the word out there and make people aware of the good things you’re doing. It doesn’t matter how, but you want the participation rate to be high,” she added.
Knowing where to start

For many organisations, the challenge was simply knowing where to start with their wellbeing and mental health policies, let alone what sort of interventions should be put in place.

Megan Kille, people business partner at online fashion retail platform Farfetch, explained that the company went through several iterations of its wellbeing strategy before it settled on a programme that focused on psychological strength.

“We had yoga, massages and talks, but it was only after receiving feedback from our director that we found we needed a focus. We were told to go away and look at the data and focus on one theme. Because of that [exercise], we decided to focus on three pillars: raising awareness, equipping managers and positive thinking, so anything we do now falls under one of these.”

Equally, it is important that various cross-functional teams get involved in developing the strategy to ensure it meets the needs of as many employees as possible and that awareness is maximised.

“It doesn’t need to remain an HR function. It should be about people across the business to ensure it’s not a tick-box exercise,” she added.

Ian Stuart highlighted some of the interventions HSBC had put in place to support its employees’ various wellbeing needs.

These ranged from employee resource groups for religious groups, working mums and an LGBTQ+ group, to name a few, through to a £3m annual investment in getting mental health support included in its private healthcare policy.

“Previously our Bupa policy did not cover mental health, so when we were telling staff that it’s okay to get help and to speak up, people would phone up and be told [the help] is not there…We can’t say all of this and not back it up with some investment,” Stuart said.

Like many speakers at the conference, Stuart pointed out the benefits of flexible working in supporting staff wellbeing, but acknowledged that it was difficult in a sector where staff – especially in branches – were expected to be available at set times to handle customer queries.

“Give management local flexibility,” he said, encouraging organisations to enable middle managers to use their initiative when an employee asks for flexible working. “Whatever you do, don’t put in a policy. The minute you put in a policy you’ll be crushed with bureaucracy. Implement flexible working, but no policy.”

He said HSBC staff are also encouraged to avoid the office on the days either side of a holiday – this avoids employees having to squeeze as much work in as possible before they go away, which he said prevents them from winding down and having an adequate break.

“Since we’ve began prioritising staff mental health our internal snapshot and Banking Standards Board survey results have steadily got better over the past three years,” Stuart said, noting that 76% more employees have asked for help with their mental health over the past six months.

Prioritising staff wellbeing

The business benefits of prioritising staff wellbeing were reiterated by BBC News presenter Kate Silverton. She highlighted the results of a MAD World survey, which showed 98% of 18- to 35-year-olds said they wanted more of a purpose at work, and suggested this should remain front of mind when developing strategies to create healthier workplaces.

“The Japanese have a concept called Ikigai, which literally means ‘the reason for being’. In the workplace, if we don’t feel that we’re valued and that we matter, then what’s the point [of being there]? As employers and employees that’s what we need to consider, that 98% of our younger generation is saying that’s the key,” said Silverton.

She noted that asking people how they are and actually listening to their response will show employees that they matter to their employer. And if employees feel that they matter, then they are more likely to open up about their concerns. This will in turn build loyalty among the workforce, she said.

“When something happens, whether it’s divorce, bereavement, or whatever it might be – we’re all going to have something at some point – if we know there’s a net to catch us then, guess what, were going to be much more loyal,” she said.

While speakers at the summit highlighted some of the varied work organisations were doing to improve employee mental health, Paul Farmer, chief executive of charity Mind and co-author of the government’s Stevenson/Farmer review into mental health, explained that there is still a job to be done before conditions such as stress and depression are supported effectively in the workplace.

Nevertheless, he encouraged employers not to let the momentum around the workplace mental health agenda slip.

“We’re nearly halfway there, but there’s still a long way to go,” he noted. “Far too many people are still going into work with mental health problems.”

Centre for Mental Health (2017). Mental health at work: The business costs ten years on. Available at:

Britain’s Healthiest Workplace (2018) Available at:

Thriving at Work: the Stevenson/Farmer review of mental health and employers, October 2017,

Mad World Summit (2019)

One Response to Mental ill health and the workplace – translating awareness into action

  1. Avatar
    Nick Pahl 10 Mar 2020 at 12:26 pm #

    SOM have produced a guide for line managers on mental health in the workplace – at

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