February 9, 2017

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Mental health: the costs to employees and businesses

By Richard Dryden and Ian Harries

Mental health can affect how we feel, think and behave and, in some cases, seriously limit our ability to cope with relationships, work and life in general.

In the workplace, mental health issues can have a serious impact on both the morale of employees, those suffering from mental health issues and their colleagues who then pick up the additional workload.

It can also impact an organisation’s productivity and profitability through overtime costs, recruitment of temporary or permanent cover – absence from work due to mental health issues is thought to cost the UK economy £26 billion per annum.

Mental health issues can appear as the result of experiences in both our personal and working lives, or like a physical illness, can just happen. Commonly diagnosed mental health issues include:

  • Depression, anxiety and panic attacks
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Phobias
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Borderline personality disorder

The Health & Safety Executive’s draft ‘Health and Work strategy: Work-related stress’ identifies that 1.5% of the working population suffers from mental health issues, resulting in 11.7 million working days lost in 2015/16 (23.9 days/case).

Compare this to self-reported injuries – 4.9M working days lost (7.2 days/case) – and the scale of workplace mental ill-health is almost two and a half times the physical impact of unsafe workplaces and working practices.

Why so? Historically, we’ve viewed performance based on fatalities and injuries, probably because we can readily see the consequences, whilst the impact of stress, depression, anxiety, etc. is far harder to quantify.

Also, it’s suspected that at least a third of injuries go unreported, and the same is likely to be true for work-related stress.

The initiative, Mates in Mind, identifies that the suicide rate in the construction industry could be 10 times more than the rate for construction fatalities.

Since 2011, the (then coalition) Government developed ‘No Health without Mental Health’, which is a cross government mental health outcomes strategy for people of all ages. This document states how the Government want people to recognise mental health in the same way people view physical and biological health. The strategy also set out the aspiration of improved services for people with mental health issues to access.

In January 2016, the Conservative Prime Minister, Theresa May, pledged to “tackle the stigma around mental health problems.” But with just an extra £15m expected to be pledged for creating “places of safety” – this amounts to about £23,000 per parliamentary constituency.

However, responses to both these initiatives have generally been dampened by both mental health experts and sufferers due to fear of rhetoric over action.

Cost to business

According to the Centre for Mental Health, the financial cost to British business of mental ill-health is an estimated £26 billion per annum, but positive steps to improve the management of mental health in the workplace can enable employers to save at least 30% of the cost of lost production and staff turnover.

Providing support for employees is important for your organisation as well as for the individual concerned.

As well as financial savings, the benefits of such investment for your organisation include:

  • Reducing the costs of lost productivity due to absenteeism;
  • Retaining valued and experienced members of staff – and thus avoiding unnecessary recruitment and training costs;
  • Reducing the cost of sickness absence payments;
  • Meeting your duty of care and legislative obligations
  • Identifying and managing mental health in the workplace

One-in-four people will experience a mental health problem in any year. A common misconception is that mental health problems are only caused by ‘home’ issues, so some employers can feel that it’s not appropriate, or their responsibility, to intervene and provide support to employees.

It is more common that the cause of an employee’s mental health problems are a combination of issues relating to both their work and private lives.

A simple example would be an employee suffering from anxiety due to high personal debt, which as well as impacting on their private life may result in the demands of their job now becoming impossible for them to cope with.

Likewise, someone under prolonged work-related stress may find it difficult to enjoy life outside of work, due to working excessive hours or drinking as a way of coping, which in turn has a negative impact on their family and/or personal relationships.

We can also be affected if those close to us experience mental health problems. Mental health problems can affect our physical and mental wellbeing, and may include visible signs (shaking), psychological symptoms (exhaustion) or a combination of both.

It is not uncommon for someone to mask both physical and psychological symptoms to the degree that no one close to them is aware. It’s important to remember that no two people respond or cope in the same way; men are less likely to seek help or talk to family and friends due to historical taboos relating to demonstrating weakness to peers.

A successful approach for organisations to work with their employees to encourage awareness, challenge preconceptions to change the approach and reaction to mental health.

Our approach is always proportional to the type of business, along with the size of an organisation. It may not be reasonable to expect a small employer to provide access to counselling, whereas as large employer may be able to do so.

However, regardless of the size of an organisation the first step is being able to communicate about mental health. This could be through:

  • Delivering mental health awareness training to management teams, with the result of improved employee performance due to a change in manager’s attitude;
  • Analysis of responses to confidential awareness surveys and comparison of absence statistics to inform organisations of the potential scale of mental health issues within their workplace;
  • Developing appropriate policies covering the range of mental health issues likely to occur in the workplace amongst both management and employees, and which makes mental health well-being a priority equal to accident and loss prevention.

All employers can minimise the impact of mental health issues amongst employees, by:

  • Introduction of ‘Wellness Recovery Action Plans’ to support the return to work of employees absent due to mental health issues so that they understand their welfare is as important as their return to work;
  • Developing open two-way communication to minimise uncertainty, and when established working ways are being changed, through tool box talks and mental health awareness moments for meetings;
  • Providing telephone helpline numbers for (i.e. Citizens Advice, The Samaritans and Mind) on noticeboards, newsletters and in payslips.

Finally, it should be noted that people with mental health issues are automatically protected under the disability strand of the Equality Act 2010 twelve months on from the point of diagnosis.

This legislation puts a duty on all employers to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ in the workplace for employees with disabilities – whether they be physical adjustments or management solutions.

Richard DrydenRichard Dryden NRAC Consultant, IMaPS, TechIOSH is associate director, Turner & Townsend Project Management – Safety, Health & Quality. Richard is the Turner & Townsend’s UK lead for all Disability Access & Inclusivity consultancy services. Delivering these services for over 15 years, he is highly recognised across the industry. Richard is also a Trustee and Company Secretary for Disability Sports Yorkshire CIC, along with being an inclusive environments assessor for the Civic Trust.

Ian HarriesIan Harries CMIOSH, CMaPS is senior consultant, Turner & Townsend Project Management – Safety, Health & Quality. Ian has been involved in the delivery of health and safety services since 1991. He has won four consecutive RoSPA Education Sector Awards, Gold Awards and Commendations, as well as the Welsh Government’s Gold Award for Workplace Occupational Health. Ian is on the Occupational H&S Consultants Register (OHSCR) and has acted as a confidential support advisor in relation to mental health and workplace stress.

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