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Championing mental health in the workplace

Karen Penney

Recent research [1] from the mental health awareness charity Mind revealed that stress and other mental health problems are the second biggest cause of absence from work in the UK.

Today, supporting employees’ mental health and well-being isn’t just an option for businesses – but a necessity. As co-sponsor of American Express’ Mental Health and Well-being Initiative in the UK, I have seen first-hand the benefits to both individuals and businesses when HR leaders understand how to promote a culture of positive emotional well-being in their organisations.

Despite growing awareness around mental health issues, many organisations struggle with a chasm between awareness and action. The fact is that for many people, mental health at work remains a taboo subject. 85 percent of UK workers[2] believe there is a stigma attached to mental health in the workplace, illustrating how much work needs to be done to change perceptions.

Mental health can be an area clouded by uncertainty – even if an employee feels comfortable enough to open up to their employer about a mental health issue, they may feel unsure about how and when to approach the subject. A business can have a wealth of resource and support for people with mental health difficulties, but if there is a reluctance or fear among employees to speak up then these valuable resources go to waste.

For HR leaders in particular, there is a responsibility to foster a culture of awareness and understanding among both employees and business leaders. HR leaders need to provide employees with advice and structures to enable them to feel comfortable sharing problems and concerns with their leaders. Mental health support should be positioned as part of an organisation’s general health and wellbeing assistance – responding to mental illness in the same way as you would to physical illness.

While mental health support has conventionally fallen to HR, businesses are strengthened when this knowledge and awareness filters through all departments. At American Express, we provide leaders throughout our business with training designed to help them identify warning signs of poor mental health early on, to ensure employees get the support they need sooner.

The key for HR leaders to unlock a culture of awareness and understanding within a business is to involve everyone in the conversation around mental health. Instead of waiting for discussions to arise on a case by case basis, it is vital to normalize the discourse of mental wellbeing throughout an organisation. When a healthy business relies on healthy employees, investing in mental health awareness is invaluable.