Mental health in the workplace

By Emily McLaren 

Mental health issues now are the leading cause of illness in the workplace. A study conducted by the American Institute of Stress in 2014 showed that job pressure was the leading cause of stress in the US. The annual cost to employers in health care and missed work topped US$300 billion.

Ignoring mental health in the workplace doesn’t make good business sense. Research shows that companies in the FTSE 100 that prioritize employee engagement and wellbeing outperform the rest of the FTSE 100 by 10 per cent. We know that work performance and effectiveness largely is dependent on mental health and wellbeing. With as many as one in four of us experiencing mental health problems in the course of a year, organizations understand that this is an important issue for them and their staff.

Problems related to mental health in the workplace are increasingly common. More research is being conducted to look into how it affects both employers and employees. Recent research by AXA PPP healthcare found that 23 percent of employees say they won’t tell their line manager the real reason for their absence when calling in sick because they’re afraid of being judged. Even more concerning is that a further 15 percent said they’re afraid that they won’t be believed.

Employees are much more likely to lie to their boss about the reason for being off sick if the cause of the sickness is related to mental rather than to physical health. The reluctance to disclose mental health issues is also more pronounced in SMEs. Only 37 per cent of those working for small businesses said they would tell their boss if they were off due to stress, anxiety or depression, compared to 44 per cent of those working in larger companies. However, a survey conducted by Mind said that 60 per cent of workers would feel more loyal and motivated if they felt their boss invested in measures to support their wellbeing.

Employers should consider the following measures to support and protect employee wellbeing:

  • Flexible working options
  • Managers who are effectively trained in mental health
  • Raising awareness and creating an open culture to discuss mental health
  • Involving employees in decision-making
  • Integrating mental health and wellbeing throughout policies and procedures
  • Introducing stress risk management procedures
  • Providing access to employee assistance programs and occupational health
  • Having regular meetings with managers
  • Introducing performance management processes
  • Conducting return to work interviews

Clear links between physical and mental health support the case for protecting mental health and wellbeing at work too. Poor mental health is associated with an increased risk of diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes, while good mental health is a known protective factor.

A recent report by the UK-based mental health charity Mind and Business in the Community (BITC), which campaigns for better workplace support, developed by international business leaders with a core purpose of creating happier and healthier workforces, highlighted the example of the confectioner Mars. Mental health sick days were reduced to almost zero and employees reported better sleep and reduced stress after a wellbeing support program for all sales staff was introduced in 2011.

With approximately one million US employees missing work each day due to mental health issues and the annual cost to the American employer hitting nearly five per cent of the country’s GDP, the principle of investing in support for employees who may be struggling is not just morally correct but a financial imperative.

A longer version of this article first appeared in PsychCentral