It is in the interest of both government and employers to build on recent progress and work in concert to do more on mental health in the workplace, says Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind.
Time to thrive
With mental health problems affecting 48% of workers each year and mental health being the leading cause of sickness absence, it is not surprising that employers are starting to look more closely at the crucial role they play in supporting the wellbeing of their staff. This is to be welcomed and Minds at Work, a new report by the Changing Work Centre – a Fabian Society/Community initiative - that I have contributed to, makes an important contribution to the debate.
The annual cost of poor mental health to employers is between £33bn and £42bn. This cost arises from sickness absence, staff turnover, and presenteeism - employees coming into work even though they’re unwell and not at their most productive. Shockingly, 300,000 people with a long-term mental health problem lose their jobs each year.
October 2017 saw the publication of ‘Thriving at Work’ - the independent review of mental health and employment. Commissioned by the Government and led by Lord Dennis Stevenson and me. The review sets out six mental health core standards and four more ambitious enhanced standards for employers. It has a bold ambition that in ten years’ time, employees will have ‘good work’, which contributes positively to their mental health, our society and our economy.
At a time when there is a national focus on productivity, the inescapable conclusion is that it is in the best interest of both employers and Government to prioritise and invest far more in protecting and promoting staff mental health.
The role of Government
The Thriving at Work recommendations were formally accepted by the prime minister and by the Government in their Work, Health and Disability command paper, Improving Lives. An implementation plan was developed by the Work and Health Unit, outlining the Government’s commitments both as an employer and policymaker.
It’s now been over a year since the review was published, and we have been closely monitoring central Government as an employer to ensure that it is implementing the standards and leading by example. When it comes to policy, however, we feel there has been little progress made and the Government could do more to implement some key recommendations. These include the legal protections under the Equality Act 2010, the enforcement of these protections, and the improvement of statutory sick pay.
There is a clear need for Government to do more to ensure employers comply with existing equality and employment laws. People with mental health problems are covered by the Equality Act 2010, therefore employers need to take responsibility for offering reasonable adjustments in the same way that they would for an employee coming to work with a physical problem, e.g. a broken leg. The Government is committed to taking action to extend protections from discrimination in the workplace both through the Equality Act 2010 and other legislation.
The role of employers
Many employers are increasingly striving to create mentally healthy workplaces for their employees. This includes tackling the work-related causes of stress and poor mental health at work, promoting wellbeing for all staff, as well as supporting employees experiencing mental health problems. Employers who invest in wellbeing initiatives are more likely to report higher morale and reduced sickness absence among their staff. Interventions need not be large or expensive – things like flexible working hours, generous annual leave, subsidised exercise classes and regular catch ups with colleagues can all make a big difference.
It is vital that employers develop a strategy for supporting the mental health of employees which aligns with their overall organisational strategy. A mental health at work plan should set out how an organisation approaches supporting its staff, including support options available should they become unwell. It should also include policies and procedures that promote wellbeing and tackle the work-related causes of poor mental health.
Smart workplaces are recognising the value of prioritising workplace wellbeing and, as a result, seeing happier, more engaged and productive staff who are less likely to need to take time off sick. But we also want employers to create environments where staff can talk openly about poor mental health at work and know that, if they do, they will be given support and understanding rather than face stigma and discrimination. We want them to see promoting staff wellbeing as more than a financial incentive or a legal duty but as part of being a responsible employer and sending their employees the message that their contribution is valued.
Providing the correct support for line managers is another crucial part of the solution. The relationship managers have with their staff is key in shaping how employees respond when they are experiencing stress and poor mental health. Managers need the skills and confidence to manage situations effectively and sensitively so they can start the process of supporting staff in a positive way. That’s why Mind and CIPD have recently revised joint guidance for people managers who might be supporting someone with a mental health problem.
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It is important employers see prioritising staff mental health as an ongoing commitment and recognise changes are not going to happen overnight. Progress is being made but we are still a long way from the point where employers recognising the value of attracting and retaining a diverse workforce, including employees whose mental health may have prevented them working previously. Employers alone cannot create the cultural change envisaged in Thriving at Work – there’s a role for trade unions, industry groups, professional bodies and accrediting organisations to come together and provide support.
Lots of employers don’t know where to start when it comes to be implementing workplace wellbeing initiatives, which is why with support from The Royal Foundation, Heads Together and 11 other organisations has recently created a free UK-wide Mental Health at Work ‘gateway’. This portal brings together information, advice, resources and training for employees and employers to promote good mental health at work: mentalhealthatwork.org.uk
This piece forms part of a report on Britain’s workplace mental health crisis produced by the Changing Work Centre, a Fabian Society-Community trade union initiative. Read the full report here: "Minds at Work"