Business comment: Tackling the stigma of workplace mental health

There is nothing like a pandemic for focusing attention on health issues. The Covid-19 virus has dominated our lives for months with more than 22 million infections worldwide. Yet it is scarcely mentioned that 264 million people worldwide suffer from depression, just one of many mental disorders.

Debbie Byers is the founder at Speaker Buzz.

Nobody is playing down the seriousness of Covid-19. But that is exactly what we do with workplace mental health problems. That’s why the following insights might help us tackle the hidden pandemic and improve the health, happiness and wealth of millions.

Poor mental health is serious and widespread. Stress and unhappiness at work tend to be trivialised, but they seriously affect our health, our relationships and our life expectancy. People with poor mental health die, on average, 20 years earlier than the rest of the population. One in three avoidable deaths in the UK involve people suffering from poor mental health. We need to remember these hard facts.

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It costs businesses billions. Just as Covid-19 is also having a devastating economic impact, so too does poor workplace mental health. The global economy loses around $1 trillion every year in productivity as a result of depression and anxiety. More than one in four Americans report feeling “super-stressed” at work while one in six British workers is struggling to cope with stress, anxiety or depression at any one time.

Mental health problems are the leading cause of absence from the workplace, yet we shy away from them. The vast majority of organisations have put nothing in place to support those employees affected. Unfortunately, the stigma around mental health is toxic. Much of this avoidable damage is because mental health remains a taboo subject. Even if it isn’t quite as stigmatised as it was a generation ago, we are still engaged in a conspiracy of denial.

Many more people are happier discussing their sexual or financial problems than their mental health issues. Indeed, 95 per cent of those taking time off from work because of stress admit to giving a different reason to their boss rather than admit they are struggling to cope.

But there are glimmers of light. Pioneering companies are transforming attitudes and lives. One unexpected benefit of Covid-19 has been to drive employee wellbeing at the top of the organisational agenda. Forward thinking companies are taking action to improve employee mental health because what’s good for the individual is also good for the organisation.

PwC, for example, has enjoyed incredible results with its Green Light to Talk campaign, which aims to destigmatise mental health. Elsewhere, 30 major organisations have signed up to the Mental Health at Work Commitment, which aims to create working environments in which people can thrive. These movements are starting to break down barriers and transform lives.

The vital first step towards transforming workplace mental health is to break the taboo by speaking openly about it and normalising the topic. Effective speakers are a great catalyst for starting these important but difficult conversations that can change lives and businesses.

At Speaker Buzz, we are committed to being part of that positive change. Our expert speakers are passionate about helping organisations and individuals to make a genuine difference. Former broadcaster and model Gail Porter shares her own tragic experiences of mental health guiding organisations on how they can support those experiencing such problems.

JoJo Fraser, the inspirational author, is committed to smashing the enduring stigma around mental health at work while Alister Gray champions conscious capitalism. These are achievable objectives. If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is that we are all susceptible to mental health problems but by talking about it and acting positively in the workplace, we can make a huge difference.

- Debbie Byers, founder at Speaker Buzz

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