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The emergence of the tick box mental health culture

Helen Smith

It’s clear that mental health is more widely talked about than it has ever been, with numerous organisations running national campaigns to raise awareness of conditions and shift attitudes. Contributor Helen Smith, Commercial Director and business sponsor for wellbeing strategy, Benenden

The government itself unveiled plans earlier this year to ‘transform’ support, but despite all this, a stigma remains attached to mental health issues at work. Almost half of us know a colleague who has suffered from a mental health condition, but how many of us would actually speak to our employer about it? Indeed, would you even know who to speak to? Unfortunately the majority of us would probably answer, no.

We spend most of our adult lives at work and huge strides forward have been taken to improve employee engagement, with HR professionals at the heart of this movement. Awards like The Sunday Times Best Places to Work and companies like Expedia – which topped the Glassdoor charts this year – have ushered in a new era in the way businesses try to engage staff, while innovators such as Google have laid a new yardstick for workspace culture and environment. Thankfully, most executives and business owners now understand that if you have a happy team they are more likely to perform.

That said, mental health is a subject that remains taboo in the workplace and despite all the campaigns, little progress has been made in removing the stigma attached to illnesses such as stress, anxiety, depression, paranoia and insomnia. With two-thirds of workers thinking it’s now more difficult to achieve a good work-life balance, it’s not a shock to learn that a whopping seven in 10 employees in the UK have suffered from a condition related to mental health. Yet only 6.2% would confide in their employer and that simply needs to change.

We recently spoke to 1,000 employees across multiple industries, across the UK, and were surprised to learn that fewer than half knew their employer had a mental health or workplace wellbeing policy. When you also learn that less than a quarter of respondents said their current workplace regularly engages with them on the subject you can see why real change is not being achieved.

Disappointingly for too many UK businesses mental health is simply becoming a tick-box exercise – they are most likely aware of a national problem but fail to recognise the impact on their own employees. The numbers don’t lie and with 42.4% of employees suffering from stress, 35.2% from anxiety, 34% sleep problems and 18% panic attacks, it’s not the occasional incident and business productivity will suffer if we don’t act now.

The main concerns for businesses are that of absence, staff retention and recruitment. Four in 10 UK workers suffering from a mental health related illness will take more than 10 days leave, while 45.6% said they would look for alternative employment if they felt their employer did not provide support in relation to mental health conditions. For a business of any description this is a significant burden to bear, especially if you’re an SME that needs every person to be operating at their optimum in order to succeed.

HR departments can be the driving force behind the change that is needed to address mental health in the workplace, and simple things can make a real difference. A third of those we surveyed said that if they were to confide in someone in the workplace they would choose their line manager. So it’s natural that a massive 83.2% felt that their employer should invest in providing line managers with mental health awareness training. In fact we’re already helping our own business achieve this by training first aiders to help colleagues recognise the first signs of mental health-related illnesses and support them if they do.

It is going to take us time to completely eradicate the stigma around mental health at work and simply introducing a new policy is unlikely to result in a flood of employees opening up about their feelings and illnesses. There is a reason why mental health is a taboo subject and it’s going to take time to change attitudes – this is reflected in our research that showed seven in 10 would use a confidential helpline if it was available to them.

Mental health clearly needs to move up on the corporate agenda as we know how important mental health is to overall wellbeing. Businesses across the UK should view the mental health of their workforce as a valuable asset and realise that by engaging regularly on the subject they will be able to identify problems and introduce solutions before they lose staff and damage their reputation as a good employer.

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