It’s time to reject the Van Gogh fallacy

HOW far should your boss mess with your mind? Or to put it another way, is your mental health your employer’s business?

First up, let’s have some numbers. Estimates of how many of the British workforce suffer mental health problems a year vary from one in three to one in six – probably it depends on what you call a mental health issue. Professor Martin Prince, professor of epidemiological psychiatry at King’s College, London, says that the cost of depression to the British economy is £12bn a year, or 1 per cent of GDP.

Looking after employees’ wellbeing helps the bottom line. Firms on a list of the Best Companies to Work For in America list had a 14 per cent share-price increase from 1998-2005, double the average. Companies that feature in the Sunday Times’ Best Companies to Work For list have 13 per cent less staff turnover than the average business, half the average days lost to sickness and they generally outperform the FTSE.

In 2008 PricewaterhouseCoopers looked in to the value of wellbeing programmes and found that out of 55 firms with programmes 45 said they had found less sickness and absence – averaging a 30-40 per cent reduction. Eighteen saw less staff turnover – the average reduction was 20-25 per cent. To spell out what that means, when sickness days come down, so do costs for overtime and temporary recruitment. When employee satisfaction goes up, staff turnover goes down and so costs for recruitment and training new staff go down.

More precisely, a professional services firm reported that for every 0.5 per cent it reduced its absenteeism, it saved £23,000 – the average in the PwC report of 35 per cent would save it over £1.5m year. A 10 per cent reduction in staff turnover saved another professional services firm £464,000. A financial services firm said that reducing staff turnover by 9 per cent saved it £1.6m.

Despite this Businesslink, a government advice service, says that fewer than one in 10 businesses in the UK has a mental health policy. Of those, most tend to concentrate on the physical – ergonomic workstations, fruit and mineral water, gyms in the basement.

This is odd. PwC found that those with a more “holistic” approach – addressing the mental as well as physical – were most effective. That is common sense, but it still seems to disturb some people. The Economist recently damned these programmes as something akin to a Californian hippie cult. True, there are charlatans about – anything that talks about “neuroleadership” or promises to increase that nebulous thing “creativity” can be safely ignored. People who are seduced by such nonsense only have themselves to blame.

But there is no reason that wellbeing programmes cannot be rigorous. City chartered accountant Grant Thornton holds a course for leaders where people go on a two-day wellbeing course where they talk about nutrition, exercise, and the way that stress and fear can affect your decision-making. These are not ingénues ready to be seduced by new-age gobbledygook, they are hard-headed people, and the course is run by a GP

The mental part of the course, run by a company called Positive Health Strategies, is based on cognitive behavioural therapy, which helps you recognise and change unhelpful ways of thinking. There is no brainwashing or lying on a couch. It’s as rational as can be.

And yet the opposition to helping staff with mental health remains. The Economist argued that “misfits have contributed far more to creativity than perky optimists. Besides, curmudgeonliness is arguably a rational way to cope with an imperfect world, rather than a sign of mental maladjustment”. This is glib. The arguments that people with mental problems are more productive is an absurd cliche – you might call it the Van Gogh fallacy. It is the mental problems that often prevent them from being productive. We all know people whose defensiveness, inability to make a decision or inability to communicate effectively has hindered their career. Why wouldn’t you want to change those things?

And we are not talking about curmudgeonliness. Grant Thornton began its wellbeing programme in early 2009, when people were struggling in the financial crisis. We are talking about people throwing themselves off buildings, alcoholism, drug abuse or family breakdown.

People do not choose their mental makeup any more than they choose their families, or their skin-colour. The World Health Organisation says that all mental health problems begin before the age of 14. It is wrong for employers to accept the quirks of workers’ pasts that impact the bottom line positively – their education, for example, or skills with languages – and ignore those which have a negative effect.

Nobody sensible says that businesses are responsible for all aspects of their employees’ lives. And they are not charities. But in the City many people spend most of their waking lives at work. If it is making them miserable, it is absurd that they are just left to suffer, and to drag the firm down at the same time. Psychologists talk about a “psychological contract” between worker and employee. The sooner more take their employees’ mental health seriously, the better for everyone.