Comment: The true cost of ignoring mental health at work

Jess McNicholas of State Street discusses the true costs of neglecting mental health in the workplace, and the value of a corporate culture that prioritises it.

40 per cent of staff experience anxiety at work, says McNicholas. Picture: Philip Coburn/AFP/Getty Images)

According to research carried out by the World Health Organisation, one in every four people will be affected by a mental health disorder at one stage in their lives. With nearly two-thirds of people in the UK of working age, and employment rates at a record high, it comes as no surprise that this epidemic is prominent in the workplace – and with catastrophic consequences.

Stress and poor mental health remain two of the three top causes of long-term sickness absence, and 300,000 employees with long-term mental health issues lose their jobs every year across the UK. With mental health affecting workers on such a large scale, all businesses should have a strategy in place that not only dismantles work-related causes of poor mental health, but also supports all employees affected by it.

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Good mental health is good for business

Maintaining good mental health should be a priority for all organisations, as not only is it the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. Failure to cultivate an environment in which all employees with mental health issues feel safe and supported has damaging effects on businesses and the economy at large. After all, it isn’t only the employees themselves who suffer from the status quo.

Oxford Economics recently estimated the value added to the economy by employees who have experienced, or who are experiencing, mental health problems to be £226 billion. That is equivalent to 12.1 percent of the UK’s total gross domestic product. However, as revealed by a recent Centre for Mental Health report, mental health issues also cost employers nearly £35bn last year alone, with £10.6bn in sickness absence; £21.2bn in reduced productivity at work; and £3.1bn in replacing staff who left their jobs as a result of their mental health.

What can be done?

While some progress has been made, 40 per cent of UK employees still experience anxiety at work on a regular basis and a quarter of managers still feel ill-equipped to recognise the signs of poor mental health and deal with them adequately.

Fortunately, there are concrete steps that can be taken to tackle these issues and the value of manager and peer support should not be underestimated. Having senior staff normalise mental health by addressing the stigmas associated with it, whilst also making reasonable adjustments for those colleagues who need it, is crucial to embedding acceptance into the culture of organisations everywhere. To ensure that progress is being made, support networks and training in the workplace are a necessity.

State Street recognises the importance of providing support for its employees with “invisible disabilities”. In 2015, the company launched its first global health and wellbeing programme, BeWell, to focus on bettering employees’ physical, financial and emotional health. With regular workshops designed to help participants manage their stress and anxiety, weekly exercise classes, flexible work arrangements, counselling for employees and their family, and mental health guidance for managers, BeWell works tirelessly to mitigate, resolve and prevent issues affecting its participants’ wellbeing.

In addition to this programme, State Street provides mental health-specific first aid training through Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) and has also created an employee network, SHINE: a group dedicated to providing guidance and support to workers with mental illnesses. To extend its reach last year, the network partnered with leading UK mental health charity SANE to provide support not only to State Street employees, but to their friends, families and carers as well.

MHFA and SANE both endorsed and signed the open letter to Theresa May last November, which called for the government to amend health and safety first aid regulations to explicitly include mental health. This is an important endeavour, which State Street wholeheartedly supports.

State Street’s commitment to improving the lives of its employees with disabilities, including mental illnesses, also earned it the title of one of the best places to work and a 100 per cent score on the latest Disability Equality Index.

While the industry is making process in regards to mental health in the workplace, there is still much work to be done. If organisations actively promote good mental health among their employees, it will improve the way mental health is dealt with in the workplace and help to affect broader cultural change.

- Jess McNicholas is managing director of inclusion, diversity and corporate citizenship at State Street.