Thursday 31 March 2016 5:46 am

Memo to the City: Why tackling mental health issues makes good business sense

One in four of us will suffer mental illness during our lifetime. It’s a shocking statistic that demonstrates the seriousness of this public health crisis. Treatment can be very effective, but sufferers need to be sure they will get the support and help they need. For this to happen, we need better coordination and engagement from government, service providers and employers.

Increased diagnosis is part of the explanation for this explosion in mental illness, but so is the stress of modern city life, particularly in the wake of the last recession. Cut backs, salary freezes and heavier workloads have made workers more anxious. Technology has also blurred the boundaries between our work and private lives. We are always, as it were, “on”.

Our experience at Priory suggests that mental illness is the single greatest threat facing City workers. Since we opened our Wellbeing Centre in Fenchurch Street, we have seen a steady stream of stressed and anxious workers, seeking help for addictions, relationship problems, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and low self-esteem.

These issues affect a wide range of workers at every level. And issues can be different. Younger employees are more likely to experience difficulties associated with machoism, alcohol abuse and long hours. One patient said he regularly worked 16 hour days on just three hours sleep, then was expected to make major, rational decisions. Mid-ranking employees with young families find it hard to obtain a good work/life balance. More senior workers are faced with a lot of pressure and responsibility, while older employees may experience feelings of being sidelined.

We commonly see people experience problems during a significant workplace change. This could be in culture or personnel, or anything that adds new pressures. A less experienced worker can move on and find a different career or company. People further along in a career are more likely to have stronger emotional or financial connections to their jobs. They stay put, and are more likely to try and relieve pressures by engaging in substance abuse.

These afflictions create a huge cost for sufferers and their families. But they also create huge costs for businesses. More than 15m working days were lost to sickness because of “stress, depression and anxiety” in 2013, a rise of almost a quarter since 2009. The financial costs are staggering – estimated at around £100bn each year – and they are growing.

While UK plc is waking up to this threat, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development estimates that only six in 10 businesses are doing enough to reduce stress in the workplace.

I believe that stigma is one of the biggest problems. Not enough people seek out help, fearing embarrassment or the perception of “weakness”. Depression, in particular, can lead to feelings of shame and guilt, which prevent people coming forward. One patient told us that there was little tolerance at his company for any perceived weakness. Sufferers were considered a waste of time and money, and so dropping the mask and being honest about his stress and anxiety was a risk. There’s clearly a responsibility for companies to educate and present a more accepting culture.

Accessibility is also important. It can be far more timely, effective and cheaper to offer localised, walk-in services, ensuring as little disruption as possible. Again, reducing the stigma helps, allowing City workers to feel comfortable enough to walk into their high street mental health centre. The ultimate prize is worth fighting for. Tackling mental health issues means healthier, happier workers. And that can only make good business sense.

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