The case for protecting mental health at work has never been stronger
Chris O’Sullivan Head of Business Development and Engagement, Mental Health Foundation Feb 2017
People used to think that mental health problems were out of the ordinary, something that happened to others. Times are changing. One in six of us will experience a mental health problem in any given week, and research launched just this week suggests that a majority of Britons have experienced some kind of mental health problem, with young adults especially open about this when surveyed.
What’s clear then is that in our workplaces and in our circles of friends, there are people living with mental health problems, or just keeping themselves afloat, whether we know it or not. This Mental Health Awareness Week, alongside the main study we’ve published new analysis from our research study with employee benefits provider Unum, which surveyed 2,000 people, the majority of whom were in work, and living with mental health problems.
Mental Health Awareness Week this week is themed ‘Surviving or Thriving?’. Our work is often a key factor in our answer to that question. In our survey, 86% of respondents agreed that their job and being at work was important to protecting and maintaining their mental health - with people who had experienced mental health problems most likely to agree.
In our research report we call for employers to count mental health as an asset of the business, alongside the other factors on their balance sheet. The economic analysis for that study turned the conventional narrative of ‘mental illness costs Britain’ on its head, instead leading with the huge value added to the UK economy by people in the workforce who have experienced a mental health problem - which adds up to £226billion, or 12.1% of UK GDP. This is nine times greater than the still substantial £25billion cost of lost productivity arising from mental ill health.
With so many people experiencing distress, and our new research indicating that the numbers are even higher still, the case for investing in protecting and improving mental health at work is even stronger.
In our survey, 58% of respondents who had a mental health problem in the past five years had chosen to disclose this to an employer during this time, with just over half (54%) reporting a mainly positive experience, but 15% reporting a mainly negative experience. Some 29% of respondents who had chosen to disclose had experienced direct discrimination on mental health grounds. We are calling for employers to create a disclosure premium - where coming forward to seek help or sharing lessons learned from periods of distress is seen as a positive. We are still some distance from that point.
Line management is crucial to achieving a culture shift in workplaces, and our survey showed that line managers still had a way to go to achieve a level of mental health literacy that can bring this about. According to the survey only a third (34%) of workers who have experienced a mental health problem in the past five years have felt well supported by their manager.
The research also found that a lived experience of a mental health problem could be a valuable resource in the workplace. Anybody who has watched Brene Brown’s TED Talk on authenticity and vulnerability will recognise that there is an increasing desire for more personal authenticity in work, life and politics. Managers with lived experience surveyed felt much better prepared to be able to support colleagues who are experiencing distress. Moreover, when asked if they felt confident providing day to day line-management to a person with a mental health problem, Just 47% of managers without lived experience said they were confident, compared with 75% of managers with lived experience.
In the survey, we asked respondents to list their top priorities for addressing mental health at work - managers and staff, with and without personal experience of mental ill health. The top three desired actions were the same across the board:
• Creating workplace culture that supports mental health and enables people to seek help when they need it• Commitment from senior leadership to support mental health and wellbeing in the company• Clear mental health policies within the company that are implemented at all levels.
Today we are aware of so many examples of employers that have taken steps to address mental health across the business, with outstanding examples such as KPMG, who this week are rolling out mental health awareness week across their UK business. We must celebrate good practice, and continue to act to address discrimination on mental health grounds, enabling people to be authentic at work.
Follow Chris O’Sullivan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mentalcapital
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