‘1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year.’*
The term ‘mental illness’ covers a wide range of conditions and disorders that affect a person’s behaviour, emotions and thought processes. Examples of mental illness include depression, addictive behaviour, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and severe phobias. It is common for people to occasionally have mental health concerns at one time or another, but this develops into a mental illness when symptoms are ongoing and affect a person’s ability to function properly.
If you consider the population of your working environment, the above statistic implies that 25 per cent of them will have at least one mental health problem. Now consider how many of the colleagues that you work with directly may be affected by mental health. It’s highly likely that, unless you have a very close relationship with your colleagues, or work in a department where you are privy to confidential personal information about them, you are unaware of any mental health issues that they may have.
The problem with mental health in the workplace is that it isn’t a physically manifesting problem; it can’t be seen.
25 per cent of your workforce may have a mental health issue
It may be that 25% of your workforce do have a mental health issue, but you don’t know about it because it isn’t obviously apparent and therefore you can’t support your colleagues without asking specifically if they have a problem. It is too often the case that employees do not disclose their mental illness at all for fear of being disadvantaged in the workplace or stereotyped by their peers. In some cases, where people are aware of colleagues who have a mental illness, there is little support offered to them because the condition is not understood properly. Some people believe that the severity of mental ill health is exaggerated and so behave unsympathetically towards those suffering from its effects. Mental health problems have often been played down by managers and directors who do not understand the extent to which it is both incapacitating and extremely common. It comes with a certain stigma attached.
In the past, societal stereotypes and media perceptions linked mental illness with violence. Serial killers and sociopaths diagnosed with extreme cases of neurosis became the typecast figure of psychological ill health. Rather than explore the vast scope of mental health and its effects, many people shied away from the issue all together for fear of coming into contact with a ‘crazy person’.
Especially in the workplace, it is becoming increasingly apparent that this issue needs much more support and understanding. Not only are some individuals being subjected to adverse attitudes when asking for help from their Personnel or HR department, but some sufferers are also finding that their organisation is less than facilitating when they are requesting time off for treatment or have taken sick leave.
91 million work days lost annually
The Centre for Mental Health carried out research concluding that a total of 91 million work days are lost to mental ill health every year. The workplace productivity and therefore income that is reduced by this statistic cannot be ignored by organisations any longer. In order to increase efficiency and output (which in turn increases economic turnover) organisations need to educate themselves in the issues surrounding mental health.
The Equality Act 2010 states that a person is considered disabled if ‘they have a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities’. Simply, this states that those suffering from mental ill health are considered to be disabled under the terms of the Act. Yet a large percentage of UK organisations do not have any formal mental health policies and procedures in place to ensure that legal standards are being met.
Imagine if an organisation had no policies and procedures in place for their physically disabled staff: wouldn’t somebody be held accountable for a breach in their vital guidelines?
Organisations need to recognise that mental health is a really important matter, not only in terms of productivity and legal obligation, but also in advocating a positive outlook for the workforce. They need to ensure that they are supporting staff in creating a compassionate working environment. And not just for the staff who suffer from mental illness. Helping all employees to understand the problems surrounding mental ill health, teaching them how to identify these problems and giving training in how to best help their colleagues to function successfully at work are essential steps that need to be taken.
What are organisations doing?
One institution doing just that is the Highways Agency. Having recognised how significant the matter is they formed a ‘Mental Health working group’ made up of members representing a cross-section of the organisation’s employees. They identified areas within the company that needed management support to address issues in the workplace in relation to mental health. They created a mental wellbeing package that aimed to educate employees about mental illness and open up discussions between colleagues so as to highlight the importance of communication. Steve Dauncey, Highways Agency Mental Health Champion and Finance Director, explains further.
“The Highways Agency is committed to the health, safety and wellbeing of all our employees. We’ve worked hard to raise the awareness of mental health and wellbeing issues across our organisation, particularly with managers of staff. By engaging a working group which includes employees who have suffered mental health illness, line managers, trade union colleagues and organisational leaders we’ve begun to better understand the issues our organisation faces and what we can do to improve how we care for our people.
“We’re committed to tackling the stigma associated with mental health by communicating regularly to staff about the importance of talking to each other about mental wellbeing and highlighting the various forms of support the organisation has, such as occupational health and an employee assistance programme. We’re pleased with the progress we have made so far but have much more to do.”
If more organisations start taking this approach then the stigma of mental ill health in the workplace can really be addressed and eventually eradicated. Mental health problems affect such a huge percentage of the population that, in not trying to make a change, organisations are excluding millions of people from fairness in their working environment. Let’s ensure this ‘unseen’ issue is made visible.
Sam Fisher is the PR Assistant at the National Centre for Diversity – an intrinsic values organisation that aims to advance fairness for all in the workplace through Equality, Diversity and Inclusion training services.