Pat Ashworth, Director of Learning Solutions, AdviserPlus, discusses the importance of leadership in changing the perception and treatment of mental health difficulties in the workplace, and what leaders can do to bring about that change.
Pat is the UK’s leading expert on mental health and wellbeing in the workplace and an adviser to government on disability and mental health.
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week (13-17 May) and it matters more than ever to business leaders.
It’s well documented that up to 1 in 4 of us will live with a diagnosable mental health condition at some point in our lifetime. In addition to this, we know that suicide is one of the biggest causes of premature death in the UK. Given that we spend so much of our lives at work, it makes sense that as employers, we have a role to play in helping our staff stay healthy.
Campaigns such as Time to Change and the Disability Confident initiative from the government (AdviserPlus sits on the Government’s Professional Advisors Group (PAG) and we were part of the Task Force which designed the Disability Confident standard) are instrumental in reducing prejudice around mental health. Just as we wouldn’t expect a broken leg to get better without help, we need to recognise the importance of being able to seek treatment openly when our mental health isn’t good.
Old perceptions of mental health still trouble many industries
Historically, mental health in the workplace has been a taboo subject, not talked about openly.
Where people had mental health conditions, it was often considered that they would be unfit or even unsafe to remain at work. There has been a perception that mental health issues were a sign of weakness and employees often didn’t disclose them to management for fear of being considered incapable of carrying out their role. This attitude was amplified in some industries, such as financial services or construction, where a culture of silence around emotional vulnerability still exists to some extent.
That can be catastrophic for the mental health of employees in those industries – a fact that is borne out by the increased risk of suicidal depression for construction workers. No industry would consider the physical health and safety of its workers as an after-thought – we need to increase mental health and safety to the same level of importance.
Changing attitudes are boosting the bottom line
Good employers now recognise that no one is immune to mental health difficulties and that mental and physical health are intrinsically linked. This isn’t just important to our duty of care to employees, it’s also an important factor in the success of the business. Supporting good mental health of employees leads to lower attrition and reduced absenteeism. It also helps to reduce presenteeism, where employees attend work but due to their illness, have reduced productivity, decision-making skills and focus.
Ultimately, for any business, encouraging good mental health in staff has an impact on the bottom line, which makes it an attractive proposition for any business leader.
What are the most inspiring leaders doing?
Inspiring business leaders are fronting the change. In recognising the impact of mental health for everyone, they are pushing forward initiatives to bring about change in the way we treat mental health in work.
We have worked with employers in a variety of sectors and we see a real change in the approach to mental health. Most recently, we’ve undertaken workshops with staff in a major construction company, an NHS employer and a local council. In every scenario we find that people are grateful to be given the opportunity to talk about mental health – everyone will be touched by this issue in some way – whether personally or with friends or family. Just knowing how to listen is important and for employees, recognising that the business is supportive of mental health initiatives is essential for maintaining a great long term relationship between staff and managers.
It doesn’t just need to be face-to-face training either – we’ve worked with a major UK supermarket to produce a mental health awareness webinar that allows them to reach employees at multiple locations who may not work traditional 9-5 shifts.
My top tips to boost performance in your organisation
- The first step is to make a commitment to supporting good mental health in the workplace. This starts with a high-level commitment from business leaders. Consider raising awareness there first.
- Think about your business processes and the way you work – could there be opportunities to encourage conversations about mental health in your usual 121 meetings for example?
- Ensure you support your line managers in gaining the right skills and awareness to have good conversations – this could include introducing Mental Health First Aiders to the business – staff at any level who are trained in offering support and directing people to professional help.
- Communicate your commitment using message boards, intranet and events. There are lots of free resources online to help with this.
- Encourage all staff to look after themselves – challenge a culture of presenteeism, discourage the practice of not taking lunch breaks, give them the opportunity to take regular exercise, stay hydrated and take adequate rest.