As HR professionals, you will undoubtedly be aware of the benefits of providing staff with training in the workplace. It helps them progress in their careers and it is also a key benefit you can offer potential applicants. Contributor Helen Smith, Commercial Director and business sponsor for wellbeing strategy – Benenden.
These are the most obvious reasons why any organisation should have a robust training programme in place. However, there is one area that is often overlooked – mental health awareness training. Thanks to high profile media campaigns around the world, awareness of mental health issues is growing, which can only be a good thing. Research has shown that poor mental health is responsible for more than 70m lost working days every year and it also results in a dramatic reduction in productivity among the employees who are continuing to work while they’re ill.
Despite the best efforts of many companies to promote the fact that they have a mental health policy (our research showed that 46 per cent of employees in the UK were aware of their current employer having an official mental health or workplace wellbeing policy), according to the Mental Health Foundation, more than 65 per cent of employees feel scared, embarrassed or unable to speak to their employer about mental health concerns.
Mental illness can be a lonely place and many sufferers continue to struggle on by going to work and hiding their problems through fear of stigma and discrimination. Of course, the majority of employers will not single out an employee with a mental health issue, but how many proactively encourage staff to talk about their concerns?
A proactive and well documented mental health or workplace wellbeing policy is the first step to removing the stigma, but what do staff actually want most of all? Our survey of 1,000 UK-based employees showed that the majority want help and support. It’s understandable that employers are not the first port of call when it comes to getting help for mental health, but they do need to understand the role they play. It’s important to take on a supportive role, given that many mental health issues are caused or intensified by work.
One of the most important things to remember about mental health is that it is not rare – we found that 43.8 per cent of people knew a colleague who had suffered from a mental health issue. And it is not always a case that sufferers show visible effects of an illness. Stress, anxiety, depression and insomnia – some of the most common ailments – are clearly different from having, for example, a broken leg. But the overall impact on a business, in terms of productivity, is very similar, while personally it can have severe, long-lasting consequences if left untreated.
So, we know that employees want more support from employers and have a better understanding of mental health conditions than we have ever had before. On top of that, our research found that, if someone were to experience a mental health issue, most (34.1 per cent) would likely turn to their line manager rather than a colleague or HR. And perhaps most interestingly of all, eight in 10 thought it would help if all businesses provided mental health awareness training to line managers.
I mentioned earlier that training is important to career development, retaining and attracting employees, but we can now see that it also has a key role to play in employees being able to offer support to one another. This may not be easy to implement and in some cases will require a culture shift that is underpinned with robust training so that managers feel confident dealing with mental health matters – something that probably doesn’t come naturally to them – but the benefits to a business of any description and size could be considerable.
Ultimately, small things like mindfulness sessions and exercise can really help employees’ better cope with the stresses life and work can bring. But managers are the ones that can potentially make the most difference. They are at the heart of a business, closest to those that are potentially suffering from a mental health condition. While they can help communicate that being open will not lead to discrimination, they should also be well trained in spotting the first signs and providing the basic support, certainly as a first step on the road to getting proper qualified support from a GP.
Mental health awareness should be a high priority for training programmes in 2018 as we look to remove the stigma attached to mental health in the workplace once and for all. This will enable employers to take the first steps towards a happier, healthier workforce.
 Chief Medical Officer’s annual report: employment is good for mental health, 2014