We need to talk about Mental Health in the Workplace

By Liam Butler, VP, Corporate Sales, SumTotal, EMEA

Over the past number of years we have made strides in moving discussions around mental health into the public arena and consequently have, to some degree, ameliorated the stigma surrounding what is a highly complex and sensitive subject.

So when I read about Olark employee Madalyn Parker, and her very bold and brave decision to explain her absence from work, I felt it was an issue we needed to discuss.  Rather than the usual standard, out of office email, Parker wrote,

“I’m taking today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health. Hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100%.”

In my experience this is most assuredly not your usual automatic reply message, but given that one in four British workers are affected by conditions like anxiety, depression and stress every year, perhaps it should be quite not so unusual. It is estimated that roughly one third of sick day absences are due to work-related pressure or stress which translates to a phenomenal 15.2 million days a year at a cost to each employer of £1035 per employee, per year.

No one is immune either. Mental Health issues can, and do, permeate all levels of an organisation. I think we can all remember when in 2011 Antonio Horta-Osorio, chief executive of Lloyds banking group, made news headlines after signing off work due to stress and “extreme fatigue”.  Initially his departure which resulted in an immediate drop in the bank’s share prices and employees, prompted controversy.  Both the financial services industry and top management levels recoiled at the idea of exposure of this nature. Investors and even the government – who had a large stake – wondered about the impact and if, or when, he would return. He did, and resumed his responsibilities, but not before giving the following advice:

“The message to people working in the City or anywhere else where they are under extreme pressure and suffering, with the benefit of hindsight, is to seek professional help immediately.”

Madalyn Parker’s story might have ended with her atypical admission, and we would have seen it as complete and moved on to the next news item, except it didn’t.  Olark’s CEO, Ben Congleton, got involved. Not only did Congleton praise her for setting such a remarkable example, he thanked her for reminding him of the importance of using sick days for mental health and by her actions helping to remove the stigma associated with mental health. The exchange garnered so much attention on social media that Congleton decided to write a post for Medium, an online publishing platform, in which he further elaborated on the necessity of normalising mental health issues, particularly in the workplace.

Congleton is, thankfully, not alone in voicing his concern. In March of this year, the Institute of Directors (IoD) launched a mental health in the workplace campaign and called on the UK government to do more. Additionally, so far over 450 employers ranging from FTSE 100 companies to leading retailers and local authorities have signed an Employer Pledge vowing to change not only how we think, but how we act about mental health in the workplace and make sure employees feel supported.

Examples of how companies are demonstrating their commitment vary, but in the case of Pizza Hut Restaurants it includes both the introduction of an internal social network called No Shame which encourages discussion of sensitive topics including mental health and a 24-hour helpline for staff to get advice on anything from anxiety and addictions to relationships, dieting and fitness.

Despite such focus and efforts, we are still a long way from regarding or treating employee mental and physiological health as the same. The findings from a 2016 comprehensive assessment of workplace mental health in the UK, clearly highlight this. In this report although 60% of board members and senior managers believe their organisation supports people with mental health issues, only 11% have previously discussed a mental health problem with their line manager and 86% would think twice before offering to help a colleague whose mental health they were concerned about.

Moreover a study by Comres for BBC Radio 5 live further proves our reluctance to acknowledge any problems as 49% of respondents said they would be unlikely to tell their boss about problems such as anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder with only 35% happy to reveal their illness to a colleagues.

Sue Baker, the director of mental health charity Time to Change, concedes that such reticence is perhaps necessary.

“We wouldn’t encourage people to routinely disclose,” she says. “Because obviously there’s really poor practice still. It can result in people being passed over for promotion, not being offered opportunities to develop themselves, and to outright discriminatory comments.”

Her recommendation is only to speak up if it’s clear that your employer is supportive of mental health programmes.

As stories like Parker’s become more commonplace, I think some of the secrecy that shrouds the issue of mental health in the workplace will begin to lift. But when it does, we must be prepared to manage it and this is where I see the potential for further concern. The IoD’s ‘A Little more conversation’ did reveal that a mere 14% of companies surveyed had a formal mental health policy and less than one in five offered line management training.

So while it is about time that this subject is slowly moving from the shadows, we must take premediated and calculated steps to ensure that once in the spotlight, we manage both the situation and the individuals concerned appropriately.

Author: Kate Thomas

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