Why healthy minds matter at work

Healthy minds header
By Jennifer Constable

7 January 2019

Firms need to manage their employees’ mental wellbeing if they are to foster a more productive workplace, writes Jennifer Constable.

Mental health is now an issue very much in the public and professional eye, partly thanks to the ardent campaigning of high-profile people such as Prince William and Prince Harry, and the increased visibility of politicians and other public figures speaking openly about their personal struggles.

With statistics showing that a colossal 49% of the sick days taken in Britain each year are lost to mental health complaints, industries can no longer afford to dismiss the previously taboo subject of mental illness, which affects one in four people in the UK each year.

As awareness of the importance of mental wellbeing grows, employers have started to take the issue seriously, with more measures being introduced to ensure the mental and emotional health of their staff.

CAs are in a position to achieve success for their companies in many ways, including bringing about positive change such as mental health initiatives.

Research conducted by Mind, a mental health charity that supports and advises those with mental health problems, found that one in five employees have called in sick as a result of workplace pressure. When asked how workplace stress affected them, a further 14% also reported that it had caused them to resign from their job, with an additional 42% having considered leaving.

Time to change attitudes to mental health

ICAS One Young CA 2017 winner Jonny Jacobs is Strategy and Transformation Director at pladis, the global snack company that owns brands such as McVitie’s biscuits and Godiva chocolate.

On average, one in three UK sick notes are driven by mental health issues.

He says: “On average, one in three UK sick notes are driven by mental health issues. So, if you’ve got an annual employee sick-pay bill of £10m, then that accounts for £3m to £4m of your employee sick leave, never mind the loss of productivity driven by mental ill health. However, the issue is much bigger than just about the workplace and cost: it’s also a wider social obligation.”

He explains that pladis has around 100 mental health ambassadors who have volunteered to help their colleagues.

Time to Change is an initiative set up by mental health charities to tackle discrimination and negative attitudes to mental health.

Jacobs says: “I was delighted when pladis joined 800 other companies and signed the Time to Change pledge; we said we’re going to break down the stigma surrounding mental illness and promote positive mental health, and this is a strong public commitment that we will do just that.”

The link between mental and physical health

Studies have revealed that an individual’s mental health is closely linked to their physical health, a discovery that has prompted many organisations to adopt innovative initiatives to encourage a healthy lifestyle within their workforce.

For example, numerous offices now provide free fresh fruit to staff and some employees are enrolled in the UK’s Cycle to Work scheme.

In February 2018, the British Safety Council, whose core tenet is that “no one should be injured or made ill at work”, launched a range of mental health training courses, and now offers employers training and advice toolkits so they can help their employees manage stress.

This Is Me Scotland is a pioneering initiative to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace.

The focus has been on promoting healthy bodies to alleviate pressure in the workplace, reduce absences and cultivate a happy, healthy working environment. However, now there is also a tangible financial incentive for employers to take an interest in their staff’s mental wellbeing.

Some companies have gone a step further in implementing mental health policy strategies for their staff.

“We have trained mental health first aiders in our offices, who are able to advise on mental wellbeing,” says PwC Partner and mental health focus team leader Philippe Guijarro. “There is external support available through private medical health care, which we make available to all our staff if they need it, and this could include referral to psychologists or psychiatrists. We’ve also got mental health advocates who are available independently and we have contemplation rooms.”

Guijarro is also the founding chairman of This Is Me Scotland, a pioneering initiative that PwC launched this year, in collaboration with Barclays, Business in the Community Scotland, SAMH and the Samaritans to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace.

The Scottish Government have called This Is Me Scotland an “important step” in creating open environments to talk and support people to tell their stories. More than 150 professionals came together at PwC’s Glasgow offices for the This Is Me Scotland launch on 11 October to demonstrate their belief in the importance of talking about mental health.

Creating a more compassionate work place

Although there is an undeniable economic impetus for employers to invest in their employees’ mental wellbeing, many mental health advocates in industry also point to a gradual shift in societal attitudes as a driving factor in the creation of more compassionate and conscious working environments.

“There may be some economic benefits, with people being more effective at work, or more being present or off work less… but I don’t think that’s the motivating force right now. I think it’s about just doing the right thing,” says Guijarro, who took on his role as PwC’s mental health focus team leader three years ago, after he himself had suffered a difficult period of mental illness.

A large part of managing employees’ mental wellbeing comes down to the ability of organisations and management to open up a dialogue and encourage people to ask for help when they’re struggling.

The inclusion of mental health policy on business agendas is a positive sign that this issue is being taken seriously.

Research from Mind also found that employees are 11 times more likely to disclose a mental health problem if their line managers visibly support mental health.

Colleen Welsh, CA, Digital Solutions Senior with Johnston Carmichael, says: “Given that employees spend a great deal of time at work, employers have a duty of care to make sure that their staff are healthy and happy. A company’s employees are its biggest asset – and having a healthy, happy workforce is key to running a successful business.”

From a legal perspective, under the Equality Act 2010, mental health conditions come under the category of “disability”, constituting grounds for employees to legally challenge their employers if they feel they are being discriminated against at work because of their mental health.

In an increasingly mindful society, the inclusion of mental health policy on business agendas is a positive sign that this issue is being taken seriously.

Despite the steps some industries have already taken to support their employees’ mental health, however, more can still be done to promote further discussion and eradicate the stigma still associated with asking for help.

Welsh says: “Things are definitely moving in the right direction and employers are now actively implementing better policies surrounding mental health, but I still feel more can always be done.” She also advocates having mental health first aiders in every workplace – “the same way we have physical first aiders”.

She has prior experience of this, having introduced mental health first aiders in firms she’s worked at in the past.

She adds: “Management training, especially for line managers, is also key to supporting staff, who may be struggling with mental ill health."


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