Mark McFall: Let’s start talking about mental health

Mark McFall says the business community needs to offer more support to those with mental health issues. Picture: Contributed
Mark McFall says the business community needs to offer more support to those with mental health issues. Picture: Contributed
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In recent years we have all become more aware of our social, physical and mental health, and the term “mental health” itself has become more socially acceptable, but has this tolerance spread into the workplace?

Are employers doing enough to support people with mental health issues in the working environment?

Employers need to face up to the stigma of mental health to ensure the workforce is both engaged and thriving

Mark McFall

With only 30 per cent of employers saying they would recruit someone with a mental health problem, there is clearly still a lot of stigma within the working environment. Why is mental health still seen as a “problem” area for employers?

It is estimated that one in four of us will experience a mental health issue at some point in our lives. That’s a quarter or our workforce that we are ignoring or dismissing when all they need is a little bit extra support. We all need extra support at some point in our working lives, so why punish people for it?

Last week, we held an event for employers to discuss some of the changes that could be made. Representatives from Barclays Reach Network, the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH) and the Glasgow Alphas – the first inclusive rugby club in the city – shared their own mental health stories with a particular focus on their work life and experiences with organisations and employers.

The Health & Safety Executive estimates that every year around 1.5 million people experience a mental health problem that they believe to have been caused by their current or past work. A significant number who we, the business community, could and should be offering support to.

READ MORE: Scots councils urgently need more mental health officers

The wider workforce has to be taken into account too. Companies should consider what training and education can be provided to raise awareness of mental health issues within the workplace, and arm employees with the skills to recognise when they or their colleagues might be vulnerable.

Those attending our event were willing to learn, and this is backed by research, suggesting that 83 per cent of employers want to know more, yet feel unqualified to provide help or support to colleagues. It’s not that they don’t want to help, it’s that they don’t know how.

So, how do we move forward, become more inclusive and support our workforce through stress or episodes of ill health? Below are some initial areas to consider about making a difference within your organisation.

Training and education: Listening goes a long way. Ask employees two simple questions in relation to mental health issues: what do you want, and what do you want to find out? This can be a daunting process for any business, particularly for smaller companies with fewer staff and resource. Don’t get lost in the size of your business; be smart with what you’ve got. Barclays Reach Network began as small focus groups asking employees how they felt about mental health.

What people value most is authenticity. Role models or speakers who share their experiences and their stories is a great way to start creating a face to face discussion platform within your business.

Policies and programmes: Policies are often generic and don’t cover specific areas of mental health or inclusion. Many employers now have positive policies on disability and equality at work but to spearhead change these must go further. Do you offer an employee assistance programme (EAPs)? Do you provide free advice and counselling? Do you offer an internal system such a co-worker support?

READ MORE: PwC rolls out mental health help initiative

Barclays and SAMH recommend working in partnership with other organisations to deliver a joint support programme and share best practice. Do you have existing partners or businesses you can team up with?

SAMH encourage employers to adopt their “Lunch and Learn” sessions, a free hour-long session looking at the stigma and discrimination of mental health within the workplace. Organised by SAMH and hosted by volunteers who have experienced mental health problems, the session is delivered within the workplace for up to 20 employees.

Awareness: Starting the conversation about mental health is a big step towards raising awareness and identifying potential issues. Help employees identify what triggers their episodes of ill health. This will make it far easier to find the right coping strategy. Suggest they write a diary of their days at work to help identify what makes them feel under pressure or stressed.

Adam from the Glasgow Alphas highlighted the importance of flexible working hours and allowing employees time away from their desk to try out various coping mechanisms such as sport, gym classes or attending a therapy session.

Encourage people suffering from a mental health issue to develop relationships with colleagues to build a work-based support network. Organisations can support this through an internal programme with designated mental health advisers or providing line managers with the necessary skills to offer support. Barclays provides employees with a mentor, an internal role model designated to employees to help them get through their working day and providing daily support away from their line manager or team.

Employers need to face up to the stigma of mental health to ensure the workforce is both engaged and thriving. Get out of your comfort zone and start the conversation. Listen when people are talking, and you’ll be rewarded with great people.

Robert Nesbitt, community business manager at SAMH, summed it up perfectly: “The best tool we have is our ears. Use them. It will make all the difference.”

• Mark McFall is managing director at Change Recruitment Group

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