Tuesday 28 January 2020 5:29 am

Wellbeing is the new health and safety

Amy McDonald is founder and chief executive of mental health learning and development provider Headtorch.
founder and chief executive, Headtorch

A new decade focuses minds on the future and new strategies to encourage companies and individuals to thrive. And if there’s one commitment that the City should make in the 2020s, it’s to treat the mental health of staff as seriously as their physical health and safety.

Everything from the harnesses used by window cleaners who scale the gleaming glass towers of the City to those bright yellow “Caution: Wet Floor” signs are governed by health and safety law to protect workers’ physical health. Directors know that they are legally obligated to ensure a safe working environment for their staff.

Now, in a sector with stress levels as high as the buildings, we need the equivalent care for mental wellbeing. 

If you think that’s too nanny state, look at the impact on your company’s bottom line. 

Last week, Deloitte published figures showing that poor mental health costs UK employers up to £45bn a year. Work-related stress, anxiety, or depression now accounts for over half of all working days lost due to ill health. In total, 15.4m working days were lost in 2017/18 as a result of mental health issues, up from 12.5m in 2016, according to figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

It doesn’t have to be this way. As HSE’s senior psychologist Peter Kelly says: “Pressure is the new norm but stress is a preventable condition at work. The time to act is now.”

The HSBC solution

The problem is particularly acute in the financial services sector. In fact, banking employees are 44 per cent more likely to experience stress-related illness than other workers, with one in six employees facing stress, depression, or anxiety.

Fortunately, businesses are beginning to take note. Andrew Rodgers, former director of wellbeing at HSBC and now founder of Re Envisage, explains why the bank made mental wellbeing a priority: “At HSBC, we wanted to create the healthiest human system in financial services. Our former CEO John Flint recognised a healthy workforce was a productive one. He felt the organisation wasn’t achieving its potential because of an unhealthy pressure. It was a response to the ‘industry norm’ of passing pressure and urgency down the line, which can promote unhealthy adrenaline and fear.”

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Flint’s approach instigated conversations around mental health from the ground up. Rodgers worked with leadership teams on creating caring environments, helping to identify and resolve unhealthy stress. 

The next generation

This isn’t just an issue affecting existing employees. Increasingly, recruitment of top talent relies on a wellbeing strategy too. 

The young potential superstars seeking City careers today will have been steeped in mental health awareness at school. They will have heard everyone from rugby players and rap stars to royals disclosing their mental health struggles. They will expect not only gym membership and Bupa coverage for their physical fitness, but care for their psychological wellbeing too.

A 2019 report by the CIPD found that only a third of private sector employers have a specific wellbeing strategy. This needs to change.

The steps are simple. Be proactive. Remove stigma by talking about mental health regularly. Make someone at board level responsible for wellbeing. Stop treating the office like a battlefield. Enable people to be confident in having supportive conversations with colleagues. Don’t expect staff to “toughen up”; instead, instil purpose and energy — a belief that they are the best and are supported in their role. 

Make colleagues know that their views are valued. Start building a culture of trust rather than fear. Staff will thrive — and so will productivity.

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