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The 21st century employer and mental health

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  • Picture of Nigel Taylor FRSA
    Nigel Taylor FRSA
  • Curriculum
  • Employment
  • Mental health

Over the last few months mental health has been receiving plenty of media coverage, both traditional and social. Nigel Taylor FRSA argues that the amount of talking about the subject has not necessarily filtered down and translated to individuals talking about their own issues in the workplace and that this needs to change.

For the last few months, a small working group at CWMind has been working with and talking to organisations about how to handle the mental wellbeing of their employees. Against the backdrop of heightened anxieties, we met many companies aware of the challenge, although few with the resources, knowledge and experience to do much about it.

This is not a new situation and awareness-raising projects have become more common. However, there remains some good reasons why this subject needs to be high profile, not just now but in the long-term. Two reports from 2017: one by Stevenson-Farmer and the Deloitte report it commissioned, highlighted the costs to the UK economy and to businesses of poor mental health. In short, the entire annual cost to the UK economy would fund the whole of the NHS.

The figures, updated just before the current crisis hit, were that UK business were losing £45 billion annually. On average a company will lose £1250 per employee, mainly due to absenteeism, presenteeism (poor productivity) and in recruitment. One in four people in the workplace will be affected at some point.

The impact of Covid-19

Mental health issues surrounding the current crisis will work to increase these numbers. There are no definitive studies, but a 2020 study of 1500 workers by mental health organisation Talk Out suggests that:

  • 68% of respondents had felt anxious and apprehensive about returning to work;
  • 35% said their mental health is worse now compared to pre-pandemic;
  • Only 44% of employees have been offered some sort of mental support or advice; and
  • 31% were having fewer one-to-ones with their boss compared to pre-pandemic.

Recent thinking including the Deloitte report suggests that younger people may be affected disproportionally badly: they are more likely to work in industries that are suffering and, if that trend was already there, it will be getting worse. The good news is that where there is early intervention and a pan-organisational approach, these studies and the Lancet suggest that there is a payback for employers; there is an expected return on investment of between 1:4 and 1:9.  

Resource pressures and new solutions

The NHS spends approximately 12% of its budget on mental health issues and most of that is on treatment of severe cases, both acute and chronic. It is unrealistic to believe that any amount of extra NHS funding could be directed towards early intervention. With public funding stretched, at least part of the answer must come from the private sector. The reports clearly show that there are strong commercial reasons for investing internally in generating good mental health.

We should also be making the case for private investment in one area where a huge and long-lasting difference can be made. Schools. If early intervention is the key, this is the place to start a massive programme of education at all ages, supporting the development of behaviours that will be carried into adult life. We are starting a project now to offer support to schools for years 7 and upward, and early indications are that there is a hunger for training in this area.

Local government funding is highly unlikely in this area, with social care being squeezed in successive budgets. If funding is an issue, there must be a role for large organisations to help this process through targeted community engagement funding.

Current provision is understandably fragmented; some organisations are doing fantastic things, adopting a holistic approach to physical and mental health. Some larger organisations have developed Employee Support Programmes, while smaller ones often closer to their employees closely and can provide support mechanisms more instinctively. There are some great tactical ideas out there to help lift spirits and engage with people. My contention would be that all these great ideas are more effective when placed against a background of institutional acceptance of broader mental health objectives. What is required is for all organisations – public and private – to have a systematic response to a growing mental health challenge.

A pan-organisational approach

So, the sustainable response needs to be pan-organisational. The good news is that the evidence cited above have drawn-up a roadmap of what is required. CWMind is using a 12-step model, which builds a framework on which innovative thoughts, ideas and suggestions from the workforce can have a lasting impact.

This step-by-step approach is designed to be understandable and easily implementable, with in-built scalability. The wider objective is to bring about a change in culture within organisations with an end-point that the discussion of mental health issues becomes commonplace and built into the fabric of day-to-day working and organisational design. This would mean that it would be acceptable, for instance, to ask questions at interview stage as to how those issues are handled by the company; where the question of stigma is no longer relevant where there is a culture of open conversation.

We have experience of major changes being made by global organisations due to the intervention of small groups of engaged employees. Elsewhere leaders have instituted change from above. The direction of the impulse is irrelevant; it is the direction of travel that is important. Eventually, though, the organisation has to take up the baton in order for the culture to become embedded.

In this ideal scenario everyone in the organisation is looked after, then there is targeted and tailored support where necessary. In the TalkOut survey, 17% of respondents said they would not talk to anyone about personal mental health issues and only 15% said they would be comfortable speaking to human resources about them. That is not a situation that promotes good health. People and productivity continue to suffer.

Nigel Taylor is a self-employed marketeer and business advisor with 40 years' experience in industries such as publishing, hospitality and consumer goods. He has spent the last seven years working in and  around local government and adult social care in the UK and internationally.

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