Few topics elicit such a strong emotional response as mental health; research suggests that one in four people in the UK will suffer from a common mental health problem such as depression or anxiety each year, demonstrating how many lives are touched by the issue. One-fifth of lost working days in the UK have been attributed to mental health problems.
Yet the statistics only tell part of the story. With a number of public figures and celebrities talking so openly about mental health and encouraging others to do so, the human side of discussing depression and anxiety is now coming to the fore.
The topic was highlighted as a key issue for HR professionals too in a report we carried out looking at the workforce of the future. The Future Chemistry report emphasised the need to tackle the stigma surrounding mental health, including by perhaps referring to “mental injuries” in the same way that sports players refer to “physical injuries”, and rolling out mental health first aid training for all staff.
The pace of technological change was identified as a factor putting pressure on employees’ mental health, with some organisations running workshops to help staff manage their mental health, while others offered bespoke packages, including cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), counselling and other forms of support, with demand from staff driving the increase in service provision.
The knock-on effect of technology also had an impact, with younger workers reporting loneliness; despite having their mobile phones to hand allowing them to connect remotely to people, they felt isolated in office situations, unable to hold conversations with colleagues. Loneliness was also identified as a mental health issue for home – and lone – workers.
So what? How do I harness technology without affecting mental health?
Undoubtedly mental health issues are inextricably linked to, and impact upon, the workplace. Employers must recognise that with the “always on” culture that has been generated by advances in technology and consumer expectations of instant service or product provision, workers have never been so under pressure and so lacking in meaningful time off. Future-facing employers need to find ways of allowing detox and disconnect, whilst still maintaining productivity and competitive advantage. With the advent of agile working, surely there must be creative ways in which this can be achieved?
In terms of supporting employees with, or vulnerable to, mental health issues, employers should consider bespoke policies which are informed by the specific challenges created by “unseen” conditions such as stress, anxiety and depression. Mental health first-aiders should be appointed, and to start chipping away at the stigma still associated with mental health problems forward-thinking employers could consider identifying coaches and mentors who are prepared to speak openly and honestly about their experiences, encouraging other colleagues to share their concerns and issues before they become unmanageable and sickness absence ensues. Support on return to work, and education of other colleagues are other tangible steps which will help shine a light on, and demystify, what many are predicting will be the biggest challenge to face employers and workers in the next decade.
Sean Saluja is a Partner and Head of Employment at Burness Paull LLP