Birchwood Park Commercial Director, Martin O’Rourke, addresses the need for better mental health support in the workplace.
Around 1 in 4 of us will experience a mental health issue at some point in our lives, and with an estimated 450 million people globally struggling with mental illness each year, it has never been higher on the agenda across every sector of society.
In his Autumn budget, Chancellor Philip Hammond pledged to create a 24-hour mental health hotline, highlighting the scale of the problem we face; in education, initiatives such as the YMCA’s Mental Health Champions programme are a growing necessity for our schools; and in business, leaders are broadening the discussion on mental health.
But, do business leaders have the biggest part to play in supporting mental health? We spend around 1/3 of our entire lives at work – an estimated 90,000 hours. It’s not difficult to see, therefore, how the working environment could have the biggest impact on our mental wellbeing.
Whilst there has certainly been an increase in business leaders talking on the importance of mental health support in the workplace, the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) 2017/18 report on Health and Safety at Work has revealed businesses still have a long way to go. The latest findings show that almost 60% of all working days lost due to ill health are attributable to work-related stress, depression and anxiety. In total, the UK lost 15.4 million working days in 2017/18 due to these factors – a huge 23% increase on 2016/17’s figures.
In monetary terms, the Centre for Mental Health estimates mental health problems cost UK employers almost £35 billion – around £1,300 per UK employee. These figures account for factors such as staff turnover, sickness-absence and reduced productivity, which are all regularly attributed to poor mental health.
It cannot be clearer – businesses of every size and sector must take mental wellbeing seriously and go beyond simply paying lip service.
Where should businesses start?
Approaching mental health in the workplace can be a daunting prospect – especially if you are a small to medium enterprise. For those wondering where to start, mental health charity Mind recommends businesses take a simple three-pronged approach:
- Promote wellbeing for all staff
- Tackle causes of work-related mental health problems
- Support staff experiencing mental health issues.
Central to this approach is creating an environment in the workplace where employees feel supported. In practice, this could be ensuring your workplace has the right expertise in-house. This could be an onsite Chaplaincy – at Birchwood Park, the Chaplaincy team provide a listening ear and support to people of all faiths or none. Mental Health First Aiders (MHFA) is another, new initiative being used by businesses of all sizes. An MHFA is someone identified locally as a go-to for support. They may not be a trained counsellor, but an approachable figure capable of providing that initial support, and then able to help individuals get the right provision from there. What this creates, is a much more open dialogue on what is often considered a taboo subject. Even if they are never needed, their presence within the workplace sends a supportive message to employees.
The key message here is that this doesn’t have to be difficult. Simple, inexpensive measures such as flexible working hours, regular catch ups with line managers in a relaxed environment (e.g. over a coffee) and social activities, such as movie nights, promote a healthy work-life balance and build real relationships between staff.
Providing flexible workspace can also go a long way to support mental health. Practices such as ‘hot-desking’ can lead to better levels of internal communication and relationship, while breakout spaces allow employees to work in a way that suits them. It’s about creating a positive working environment that provides the conditions to get the best out of your employees.
The role of location in providing that work-life balance shouldn’t be underestimated. A location that offers easy access to amenities such as cafés, restaurants, gyms and leisure facilities can provide a much-needed change of environment to enjoy lunch breaks, or somewhere to socialise after a busy day. Numerous studies have proven the strong link between physical exercise and mental health, so having the opportunity to exercise even for just an hour a week can make a huge difference.
Crucially, efforts to place mental health and wellbeing at the centre of your business must come from the top. Put simply – we have to practice what we preach. I regularly take part in our Yoga and gym classes at Birchwood Park, which forces me to take a break from the busy working day and put it all into perspective. Taking responsibility for your own mental wellbeing and doing your best to maintain a good work-life balance is an important way to ensure our employees do the same.
What is clear, is that approaches to mental health in the workplace are changing, and it’s in all of our interests to do this properly. Look around and learn from the businesses that are doing it well. Test and try out new initiatives – find what works for your employees. Those that implement a philosophy based upon mental wellbeing are set to have the most engaged and productive workforce, retain the best talent and be known for supporting employees. These should be the objectives of any business.