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It’s vital that employers support workers experiencing mental-health issues

But with 300,000 people losing their job due to mental illness each year, it’s clear that the workplace is not quite there yet, says Harriet Minter

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By Harriet Minter on

A few months after I started freelancing I found myself run down, exhausted and unable to make a decision about anything. This wasn’t the first time I’d felt like this though so I knew what was required, a day away from all work with some fresh air and rest. I put my out of office on and headed out to the countryside but this time I changed the automatic reply email so that it read:

“I’m taking a mental-health day and stepping away from my inbox. I’ll get back to you tomorrow.”

The response I got to this was overwhelming. People who’d emailed me to say something was urgent instantly decided it wasn’t. Others replied thanking me for normalising the need to rest our minds in the same way we rest our bodies. And I also had a few emails saying how brave I was for mentioning mental health in this way. If I’m being honest, I would never have done that in the days when I worked for a large corporation. I would have been too afraid of being judged for even suggesting I had any mental health issues so I would have kept quiet, just like hundreds of thousands of other people.

The newly released Stephenson/Farmer report on mental health and employers, “Thriving at Work”, states that each year 300,000 people lose their jobs due to mental-health issues. The report posits that this is in part due to a workplace culture that simply doesn’t want to address the issue. Managers don’t feel they know how to discuss it with employees, employers aren’t sure what they can do to help, and staff are terrified of being sacked - so everyone sticks their heads in the sand and hopes the problem will, well, resign.

Campaigns from organisations such as Mind and Heads Together seem to have done little to change this culture of ignorance and fear. Even Prince Harry talking about going to therapy can’t convince us that opening up to our boss about our anxiety is a good idea.

It seems we’d rather show up and stare at our computer for eight hours than admit we were struggling, and employers would rather that happened too

The effect of this is colossal. Stephenson and Farmer estimate that roughly 15 per cent of the workforce show the symptoms of mental-health problems and that it costs business between £33-42bn a year, with half of that being in lost productivity due to a culture of presenteeism.

It seems we’d rather show up and stare at our computer for eight hours than admit we were struggling, and employers would rather that happened too – even when it’s costing them money.

This mutual “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude around mental health isn’t helping anyone. We all keep quiet while both our minds and our work suffer for it. One of the core proposals put forward by Stephenson and Farmer in the report is that every employer should have a mental-health plan, and that they should encourage staff to discuss mental-health issues openly and honestly. But for many employers even knowing where to start on this causes problems.

Mind, the charity for mental health, suggests the first thing to do is to show that talking about it only leads to support, not censure. They suggest promoting the idea that mental health will be treated in the same way that physical health is; guaranteed time off, support for longer term conditions, an understanding that you’re better off taking some time to get well rather than trying to struggle on and making the situation worse. They also make it clear that managing any time off so that the employee feels supported rather than isolated is key. Something simple like sending a get well soon card and agreeing how much contact you’ll have while they’re off can help people feel like they’re still in the loop without being overwhelmed.

For me, however, the biggest problem is our resistance to the idea that long hours might be doing more harm than good. Research from the OECD suggests that the most productive countries have the lowest working hours, while a study in Sweden showed that working a six hour day could make us all happier, healthier and more productive. Yet competitive industries still expect employees to pull all-nighters as standard and to be at the beck and call of clients. When we reward this behaviour and punish anyone who leaves on time we send a clear signal that hours at a desk are more important than an employee’s mental health.

We need to create a culture that recognises that mental health is as important, and as varied, as physical health. Some mental-health conditions will require more support than others and all of them will be helped by an employer who wants to support the employee rather than ignore them. The Stephenson/Farmer report is the first step in opening up a conversation about this but employers now need to be brave and actually take some action. And if they’re looking for somewhere to start I can testify that a bit of honesty in an out of office can work wonders.


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