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Updated: Mar 22, 2021

Photo by Andrik Langfield

Last week I was back at the Windsor Debates for a hugely engaging discussion on Diversity and Inclusion which had a strong focus on Mental Ill Health. It was great to see what some organisations are doing to help look after their employees minds as well as their physical health. But I still feel there is an angle that we are scared to broach and we aren’t tackling strongly enough as I explore in my latest piece.

This week is World Mental Health Day on October 10th. There will no doubt be a huge flurry of activity of organisations showing how they support the workforce who have Mental Ill Health in all its forms. And this is a great thing. Because people need to feel psychologically safe and supported in their environment, especially when they spend so much time at work. But the one thing I think is absent from this conversation at nearly every event I go to is how organisations are PREVENTING their workforce from getting Mental Ill Health in the first place.

Let’s start by looking at some of the numbers. According to the Stevenson / Farmer review which included analysis of research undertaken by Deloitte, c.300,000 people affected by mental ill health lose their jobs each year and 15% of the working population have an existing mental health condition, costing the UK’s employers between £33bn- £44bn per year in absences relating to mental health and staff turnover. Let’s then factor in the additional costs in NHS service provision and declines of income tax revenues of between £24bn - £27bn to the government, bringing the total cost to our economy to an estimated £108bn per year. When we look at the last UK figures from 2018, 15.4 million work days were lost directly due to workplace stress with a higher number of cases reported in the public sector. A recent Microsoft study discovered that 86% of us struggle to switch off out of work hours and caused troubled sleep.

There is one key reason I care about this. Mental Ill Health can affect anyone and everyone. It affected Joanna Litt in 2018 when her husband, Gabe MacConaill committed suicide in the parking lot of his Los Angeles law firm. He had recently been promoted into an important leadership role after his mentor took early retirement and was told that the firm would not be recruiting any lateral support. In addition to the promotion and increase in case responsibility, Gabe was also asked to lead on the summer associate programme. He was then assigned to a bankruptcy case he felt unqualified for, which caused a huge amount of stress and anxiety, deprived him of sleep and everything he started talking about was negatively framed. The pressure he was experiencing from all sides, including himself, was mounting and despite his wife’s best efforts to get him to a hospital for treatment which he saw as a sign of weakness. His wife suggested that he could quit his job and they could spend some time figuring out what they wanted to do. He said that he couldn’t quit his job. Instead, he took his own life.

This is not an isolated case. Gaëtan Mootoo, who worked for the Human Rights organisation Amnesty International, repeatedly asked for help but was ignored prior to killing himself in his Paris office. The UK lost 450 construction workers to suicide in 2016, which was 20% of all reported deaths in the industry, the single largest cause of death. A survey conducted by the FT asked 450 readers from 43 countries their experiences of workplace wellbeing and found two thirds of respondents said their work had a somewhat to extremely negative impact on their health. Two thirds. We spend over half of our waking days at the workplace and over 60% of us are doing so in an environment that makes us ill. Granted, the survey can be questioned regarding those who responded and whether the data is more likely to be collected from people reading articles on mental health and are therefore either directly or indirectly affected by it, but this number is way too high. So what can we do? I don’t have any concrete answers to this. If I (or anyone else for that matter) did, we wouldn’t be in the place that we are in where mental health affects so many of us. But surely there is some logic in:

1. Seeking out more knowledge and training: Part of the problem we face with mental health is the lack of knowledge with how to help and support people for a fear of making it worse for those affected. There are a number of different ways you can better understand what they are going through. If you know a colleague (or a friend) who is suffering from mental ill health, why not call your Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), or organisations like Mind to find out how you can best help and signpost that individual to being able to access appropriate care as early as possible.

2. Storytelling with your workforce: In order to help reduce the stigma associated with mental health, speak to your employees. Be vulnerable. Be open. Be authentic. Have people at all levels talk about their mental ill health experience whether it be common mental health issues such as depression or anxiety or more enduring conditions such as schizophrenia or ADHD and positively describe how your mental ill health or neuro-diversity makes you special. But it is more than just the experiences. Role model the things which mean you are able to stay as mentally fit as possible. Whether that’s leaving the office at 3.30pm to watch your children perform sports or performing arts, or going for a run, embed a culture which enables staff to know it is OK for them to take the time out for themselves to keep well.

3. Putting your People before your Profit: When we stop relating to the human beings we are surrounded by and are driven by our own agenda to succeed and be rewarded, we lose perspective on the impact our behaviours have on others. Stress and anxiety are often triggered by situations and events. We as colleagues should never be these events. And if we see these poor behaviours, challenge it. Strongly. Go to your Board or CEO. Do not accept this. Ever.

4. Valuing your people: Thames Water have created a Culture of Care which includes a range of different interventions that helps people maintain their mental health as well their physical health. One such example follows the principles of statutory requirements for providing MOT for their fleet of vehicles, so they now provide health assessments (both mental and physical) for the entire workforce, not just the leadership which is exactly the same cost.

If these initiatives are struggling to get buy in with your executive or leadership team, try thinking about the mindsets you are working with and present either logic or analytics to support the case. If the cost of delivering these supportive methods appears prohibitive, show your leaders the Deloitte’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Review which shows the average return on investment being £4.20 for every £1 invested (with even more value delivered when the intervention is delivered early enough when the employee is engaged during a period of good mental health so the proactive ROI is higher, reducing the cost of absenteeism, presenteeism or attrition due to the ill health worsening.

I know this article tackles a huge issue and as I said, I don’t have all the answers for much simpler issues within me, let alone one of this scale and impact. But I know that mental ill health is something that can affect all of us. Our exposure to either having mental ill health ourselves or experiencing it indirectly to those in close proximity to us (such as a family member, loved one or friend) is in the region of 75%. So giving as many of us reasons to and the diagnostic tools to keep ourselves mentally fit is really crucial for the whole of society as well as the workplace. And understanding there are different tools which suit different people. Some will respond better to talking therapies as a starting point. Others may prefer to use technologies such as Headspace or Calm to help balance their mental health.

Regardless of what type of mental health condition someone is experiencing, or the complex situations that surround it, we can all play a part in our or their recovery. We are losing our ability to be kind. We are losing our ability to listen. By carefully thinking how and what we say, and spending a few extra minutes on someone, we may well help people more than we will ever know. Hopefully, they will be around to tell us that.

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