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At the front of mind

Written by Josh Russell on Monday, 08 October 2012. Posted in Insight, Analysis

With one in six workers experiencing stress, anxiety and depression, there’s no denying mental illness affects the workplace. But there are plenty of things businesses can do to keep mental health at the heart of matters

At the front of mind

People tend to think about mental health in rather black and white terms: this person is mentally ill, that person isn’t. But this flies in the face of an incredible amount of scientific research. “We all have mental health, the same as we have our physical health,” Emma Mamo, policy and campaigns manager at mental health charity Mind, explains. “We’re somewhere on a spectrum from good to bad and we move up and down it for a variety of reasons.” All of us are susceptible to mental illness if we are exposed to harmful conditions or aren’t given the appropriate help when we need it. Which is why the benefits of creating a mentally positive workplace cannot be underestimated.

There is a strong case for employers taking the mental wellbeing of their employees seriously. Mamo elaborates: “Each year £26bn is lost from the UK economy because of this issue, which works out at about £1,000 per employee.” This isn’t just down to obvious factors such as sickness and absence. In fact, increased staff turnover due to clinical stress and issues such as presenteeism – where employees still come to work even though, due to fatigue or illness, they are unable to work at full-capacity – have at least as big an effect. “It’s a huge problem, but a bit more of a hidden one,” comments Mamo.

But taking care of your employees’ mental health needn’t be driven solely by the threat of negative repercussions. “I think it is good to talk about the business case for it but I think also what’s important is to talk about the positive benefits of being proactive,” she says. One of the key benefits is a workplace where employees feel they can be more open and relaxed, where managers and staff have relationships that support genuine and open communication. “Having those relationships, having regular catch-ups and asking people how they’re doing means that you create the space for people to talk about these issues.”

Mindful Employers is a voluntary charter and support network that helps businesses actively engage with addressing mental health in the workplace. Richard Frost, lead for the initiative and vocational advisor for Workways, a part of Devon Partnership NHS Trust, agrees that a focus on openness is vital. “A lot of it is about improving understanding in communication,” he comments. Not only does this have benefits for employees’ morale but it also makes it easier for employers to engage with staff they feel might need some additional help. He elaborates: “If they have concerns about a particular individual, maybe they’ve noticed a change in their behaviour, it just gives them some openings as to how they might begin to approach the conversation in a supportive way.” And these openings are vital, particularly when dealing with a subject that is still viewed by many as ‘something you don’t talk about’.

Stigma around mental health issues can be a huge problem. “We all know that mental health is still seen as a taboo subject – there still is a lot of stigma around it,” remarks Mamo. One of the things that makes it so insidious is that unlike racism, sexism or other forms of discrimination it is rarely explicit; the stigma of mental illness is far more likely to be implied than expressed. “Experiencing mental health problems is often lumped in with poor performance at work; it can be a factor at times but that then drives additional stigma around people’s capabilities,” Mamo comments. Outwardly expressing that you are struggling can be viewed as unprofessional. It’s only when this is transposed onto ideas of physical health that we see how ludicrous it is; a colleague complaining of lumbar pain is unlikely to attract much of a value judgement. But for the co-worker who admits he can no longer handle the stress of his job things are very different.

Yet there’s quite a leap between understanding stigma and doing something to fight it. Obviously the bluntest end of the wedge is outlining a zero-tolerance stance; it should be clear to staff that mental health is covered by the harassment policy and will be dealt with through the same channels. But the subtler work lies in engineering a culture shift.

Mamo feels that it starts with being direct when addressing the subject, making it clear to everyone that mental health is a spectrum. “You can ask, ‘What can we do to stay down the better end? What behaviours can we follow?’” she offers. “Having that kind of proactive conversation will mean that people hopefully feel that it is a safe space to talk if they are experiencing a problem – as well as highlighting that experiencing problems is a part of human nature.”

Additionally, being open and honest, when appropriate, about your own experiences of mental health can serve to weaken the feeling that the subject is taboo.

“We’ve certainly had organisations where one of the more senior members of management has spoken quite openly to groups about their own experiences,” comments Mindful Employers’ Frost. “It increases the understanding that actually more and more people experience these kinds of issues and that it’s okay to talk about them.”

Mamo also feels there’s a real value in showing you are unabashed about your own mental health problems. “Leading by example is important. You can talk about how you experienced a difficult period, how you got over it, what you learned.” There’s a real value in sharing your experience with your staff, showing that the environment is one in which these issues can be openly discussed as well as demonstrating that there are others who have been through the same experience. “I think when I’ve worked with different managers, people who’ve been honest and authentic, those are the people that do inspire their employees,” she explains. “So I think that can be really powerful.”

There are also practical procedures employers can put in place that have a marked impact on protecting their employees. Something that has helped a lot of employers is the ‘wellness action recovery plan’, which has been adapted from the healthcare world to assist organisations in recognising the warning signs and intervening to reduce employees distress.

“It’s a tool that someone would normally work through with their mental health professional and it talks about the impact of their mental health condition,” says Mamo. “What are the early warning signs, what are the early triggers, what’s helpful to do, what’s not helpful to do.” Everyone in Mamo's team has completed one of these assessments; Mamo says it helps her superiors recognise when she’s feeling under pressure and do things to help her feel supported, even if it’s just a case of inviting her for a chat.* “When my manager spots those signs she’ll say: ‘Emma, do you want to have a chat about anything? How are you coping? Is everything okay?’”

But it’s not all about such formal procedures. “There are other really basic, cost-effective things that an employer can do,” she says. One of the most important is ensuring staff have a reasonable work-life balance – even if overtime and late hours become a necessary expedient, making sure staff take back time can make a huge difference.

“Another thing is ensuring people take a lunch break,” comments Mamo. “It sounds counter-intuitive if you’ve got loads of work but actually taking that hour to get away from a desk gives you perspective.” Research from BUPA has demonstrated that working through lunch breaks, far from increasing productivity, actually significantly lowers it and costs businesses somewhere in the region of £50m a day – adding this to the impact on employees’ mental health makes the 30 minutes saved seem like a rather poor trade-off.

Admittedly, committing oneself to these principles and actually putting them into practice are two radically different things. But the business world is hardly lacking in examples of companies that are taking huge strides in addressing the issue of mental health. One only has to take a brief look at the work of Mindful Employer itself to see that attitudes toward mental health in business are changing radically.

Since 2004, nearly a thousand employers have signed up to its charter including EDF Energy and AXA PPP Healthcare; something that is made even more impressive given the fact it’s not compulsory. “It’s something that’s completely voluntary for employers to become involved in and make use of in the way that best suits their business,” Frost remarks. Not only that, but it also shows how UK businesses are throwing themselves behind fighting mental-health stigma and making their support for sufferers public. As Frost concludes: “It’s a public and tangible statement that this employer is seeking to understand and support people with mental health problems.”

 

The mind of equilibrium

There’s a huge amount of support for mindfulness practice and meditation helping with certain mental health disorders. Statistics from the Mental Health Foundation quote research that demonstrates mindfulness meditation can cut the relapse rates of recurrent depression by up to half. “The benefits of mindfulness, you’re probably aware, are staggering,” comments Richard Latham, producer of Be Mindful Online, the online mindfulness training resource. “The research puts it head and shoulders above anything else.”

Mindfulness can help us to become more aware of the patterns our thoughts take – by developing a more intuitive understanding of our cognitive processes we can learn to introduce ways of thinking that are more constructive or beneficial to us. While practice can be viewed as a form of exercise, enabling us to keep fit mentally as well as physically, the results can have a huge affect on a person’s ability to cope with unexpected pressures. “It gives you the tools to come into the present moment at any time,” Latham comments. “When you focus purely on the present moment your concentration is better; you also feel more relaxed and in control.”

But what is mindfulness? Despite its popularity in mental health circles, to the layperson it can seem like a bit of a nebulous term. “It’s about developing your awareness,” explains Latham. “Generally, it’s about being aware of how your body feels, what thoughts are running through your mind and then expanding them out into being aware of your surroundings and other people.” Given the press it receives, hearing how basic the practice is almost makes it seem like something of an anti-climax. But this would undermine the very real and palpable impact it has. “The effects are strong because usually you’re not in the present moment for the majority of your waking day,” Latham comments.

How can an employer use this to breed the most mentally positive workplace they can? It really is a case of leading by example. “Entrepreneurs and CEOs are really where the action is for mindfulness,” Latham explains. “That really is where it should start.” The last thing a company should do is roll it out as a sort of ‘productivity tool’, akin to a mandatory session of tai chi for company employees before the morning meeting. “We’ve seen issues where, when it’s deployed in a sort of motivational type, positive-thinking rollout, which employees are quite used to, it really misses the point,” he comments. While it will help an employee cope better with the pressures of workplace, it’s not just a stress-reduction gimmick. “Mindfulness is for your whole life,” Latham concludes.

About the Author

Josh Russell

Josh Russell

As editor, Russell is the man in charge of properly apostrophising our publication and ensuring Oxford commas are mercilessly excised. Our digital doyen, he’s also a Photoshop Pro, a dab hand with InDesign and the man to go to if you need a four-hour soliloquy about the UK's best silicon startups.

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