It’s good to talk – opening up about mental health in the workplace

It’s good to talk – opening up about mental health in the workplace

5th July 2019

Looking after the mental health of your employees – and creating a culture so that employees can talk openly about any problems they may have, and where signs of mental ill health are spotted early – can be crucial to the success of a business.

Katie Buckingham, founder and director of Altruist Enterprises, which provides resilience, stress management and mental health at work training to organisations nationally, spoke about how employers can better understand mental health and start conversations about the subject with employees in her seminar at the Made in the Midlands Expo at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry on June 20.

To begin, Katie outlined the scale of mental ill health in the workplace. She noted that 31% of employees have experienced a mental health problem at work, according to the CIPD Employee Outlook 2016. In addition, she quoted figures from mental health charity Mind from 2014 that one in five people have taken a day off work because of stress – but 95% of those gave a different reason for their absence.

Yet stress is the most common cause of long-term sickness absence in the workplace, according to the CIPD Absence Management Survey 2017.

This isn’t something that employers can afford to ignore; poor mental health costs employers between £1,205 and £1,560 per employee per year – all employees, not just those who are ill – according to the Thriving at Work Review 2017.

However, workplace mental health interventions show a return to business of between £1.50 and £9 for every £1 invested, again according to the Thriving at Work Review 2017.

There are many factors that can cause stress in and out of the workplace, including workload, annoying colleagues, financial concerns, multi-tasking – even a lack of wi-fi. Mental ill health can affect the way we think, feel and our sense of wellbeing.

However, for mental health to be effectively addressed in the workplace, the tone of conversation needs to change. “When we talk about mental health it tends to be in negative terms,” Katie said.

Rather, the emphasis should be on being positive about good mental health and on preventing any mental ill health before it gets to the point where employees need to take time off.

Katie gave an example of a hypothetical employee called Dave. As his workload was increased, Dave’s behaviour changed – he found it difficult to relax, became defensive, started to suffer from headaches, memory loss, increased heart rate and then absenteeism – as his mental health started to deteriorate due to stress.

“If employees are acting out of character it is worth having a conversation with them – it could be an early sign of poor mental wellbeing,” Katie said.

Conversation is key – if mental health problems are kept bottled up, they will only get worse. And you don’t have to be a mental health expert to start one, she added. Just asking someone how they are feeling can be enough to start a conversation. But once one has started, it is important to make time to listen to the person and not make them feel rushed. In addition, clichés such as ‘pull yourself together’ should be avoided – and an open mind should be kept. As should your door – let the person know you are always there for them. Finally, employers should signpost their employee to appropriate support – be it a GP, mental health charity or another organisation.

There are also plenty of training courses out there for employers to go on to understand more about mental health.

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