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Why the mental health of your workforce is your best investment?

​Awareness about mental health is greater than it has ever been. Last year, Prince Harry spoke movingly about the difficulties he faced with his mental health following the death of his mother and the benefits he got from talking therapy. He joined a growing number of public figures who have been prepared to speak about their own mental health in recent years.

Just a decade ago, this would have been unimaginable. Disclosing a mental health condition – past or present – was a taboo more or less everywhere. Media representations of people with mental health difficulties were either hostile or patronising, portraying them as either dangerous or pitiful. And talking about mental health, at work or anywhere else, was extremely rare.

A lot has changed in that time. In schools, in families and with friends, more of us feel able to talk about our mental health. Having depression or anxiety is no longer something to hide or be embarrassed about. And there is more help available from the NHS with talking therapy services available across the country and the availability of advice and information online.

But what about the places we work in? As employers, do we yet have an acceptance that a significant proportion of the people who work in our organisations will have difficulties with their mental health? Do we create safe spaces for people who are struggling to disclose it and get some support? And do we do as much as we could to make our workplaces mentally healthy and prevent avoidable problems in the first place?

We now know that the cost of poor mental health to business is staggeringly high. Our research found that nationwide, the business cost is some £34.9 billion every year. That’s the equivalent of £1,300 for every employee. So for a business employing 10 people that’s an annual cost of £13,000; or for 100 people £130,000. But a significant part of that cost can be saved where employers take action to support the mental health of those who work for them.

The costs of poor mental health at work comprise three elements. The most widely recognised is sickness absence: people having to take time off work. This amounts to about a third of the cost. The largest component is so-called ‘presenteeism’, where people come into work when they are unwell and struggle to cope, and as a result are less productive.

Presenteeism is particularly common among people with mental health difficulties for many reasons. It often takes time to recognise the signs of depression or anxiety. And sadly many people fear telling someone at work if they are having difficulty. They worry that they will be judged, sidelined and ultimately they might lose their jobs and have a ‘black mark’ on their CVs. This is difficult enough in traditional employment situations, and may be harder still in the ‘gig economy’ or the world of zero-hours contracts and self-employment.

The good news, though, is that it need not be this way. We know more and more about what employers can do to cut the costs of poor mental health and create healthier and more productive businesses. Workplaces that put people in control of the way they work, that prevent bullying, and that offer security are less likely to generate work-related stress.

Workplaces that make it okay to talk about mental health and train line managers in recognising and responding to problems are more likely to help people to get better at a lower cost. And companies that are prepared to take someone on who has a history of poor mental health will benefit from the skills and loyalty of people that others have ignored.

At Centre for Mental Health, we believe that any workplace can become a ‘compassionate organisation’. It is not expensive and it is rarely complicated. Very often it simply calls for good management, humanity and common sense. And the result will be a more effective and efficient business that is great to work in.

Andy Bell | Deputy Chief Executive | Centre for Mental Health