How to tackle mental health issues in the workplace: Why open conversations are so critical

Stephen Martin
London By Night
Source: Getty

By rough calculation, the average person working a 9 to 5 job until retirement will notch up more than 80,000 hours at work.

It is a daunting figure, and I feel a little guilty for bringing it up on a Monday morning. But the fact remains that, for most, work constitutes a large chunk of our lives. And so, as mental health awareness week begins, it is absolutely crucial that the workplace is at the centre of any discussions on tackling the issue.

We recently asked Institute of Directors (IoD) members about the experiences they have had as employers with mental health issues at their workplace, and the responses were somewhat sobering.

They indicate that the proportion of business leaders who report having been approached by staff with mental health concerns has risen over the past year to just under 40 per cent.

Read more: Listen up! The City has a new campaign for mental health

On the one hand this may reflect a greater willingness on the part of employees to broach the subject of mental health concerns with their managers, and this is something to welcome. On the other, though, it is a stark reminder of the scale of the mental health challenge facing UK businesses, as well as the urgent need for employers to have the tools at their disposal to tackle this challenge.

Bosses have had some new guidance over the past few months. In October of last year, a government review – written by Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, and Dennis Stevenson, former chair of HBOS – outlined six “core standards” for employers to stick to in their efforts to ensure the wellbeing of their staff. What is striking about the recommendations is how straightforward and rooted in common sense they are. There are no convoluted processes for businesses to adhere to, no burdensome list of box-ticking exercises to complete, no mandated dogma from on high to follow.

Instead these principles simply and clearly state the reasonable measures that companies can and should be incorporating into their set-up.

The standards include instructions for companies to “encourage open conversations about mental health and the support available”, and to “routinely monitor employee mental health and wellbeing”.

It is often the case that companies, especially smaller firms, have all the will in the world but feel stymied by a perceived lack of knowledge, or a lack of confidence in dealing directly with the issue. In this sense, the simplicity of the recommendations are especially welcome.

Often the answer to addressing mental health concerns is not through setting out a stock list of directions to follow, but rather through conversations. This is why over the past year the IoD has held multiple mental health workshops for company directors up and down the country as part of our ‘a little more conversation’ campaign.

Read more: Mental health is a larger concern than physical health for many companies

I know from the enthusiastic uptake of these sessions and from speaking to business leaders in firms of all shapes and size that gearing their organisations with support structures for staff facing mental health concerns is an urgent priority.

Simply put, it is in no-one’s interest for mental health concerns to go unaddressed, and many company leaders themselves know this first hand. With the stress and loneliness that often comes with running a business, it is no surprise that so many entrepreneurs are affected by mental ill-health.

But our aim here should not just be about stopping work from detracting from people’s mental health.

As pointed out by Farmer and Stevenson in their report – aptly titled Thriving in Work – your job can and should contribute positively to your mental health. The sense of achievement that you feel when hard work is rewarded can obviously be immensely beneficial for anyone’s mind-set.

So the onus should be upon everyone to ensure that the workplace is an arena in which everyone can thrive, and this year we must continue to do better.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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