• International Workplace
  • 9 January 2018

Thriving at work - Wellbeing and mental health

The week after Christmas is a particularly challenging one for wellbeing. The festivities are over, but the hangover may not be. The weather is gloomy and the sniffles are breaking out. We’re in debt from overspending and the new year stretches out before us without much guarantee of being better than the old one. Despite our best intentions, most resolutions that we make will be broken. But I can report on one resolution that has been well and truly kept: a report on the state of mental health in Britain’s workforce. Exactly one year ago to the day from being commissioned by Theresa May, Paul Farmer, CEO of Mind, and Lord Stevenson, formerly Chairman of HBOS and now a prominent mental health champion, delivered their review of mental health at work.

A lot has changed in that time (not least, one would imagine, the mental health of a great number of people in government and the public sector, which has come under additional strain for a variety of reasons). Mrs May now has her hands about as full as any Prime Minister since the 1970s. And this is a subject that has been talked about a lot.  Dame Carol Black's review “Working for a Healthier Tomorrow" is now ten years old. The HSE research into stress at work that led to the Management Standards was in 1991. And only two Januarys ago, David Cameron pledged a “revolution” in mental health care and earmarked £1bn to help solve it. Like one or two other things his government promised to sort out, it was not well thought through, and has now been left to Theresa May to deal with the tricky details.  

What may be different about this review is the numbers. Stevenson and Farmer appoint accountants Deloitte to look over the financial impacts of poor mental health. Some pretty startling figures are quoted. 300,000 people with a long-term mental health condition leave employment every year, equivalent to the whole population of Newcastle or Belfast.  Poor mental health costs employers between £33bn and £42bn a year. This amounts to a cost per employee of between £1,205 and £1,560 per year. This cost is for all employees, not just those who are ill.

Mrs May’s founding contention when she commissioned the review was that if you have an arm in plaster, people ask how you are. But if you have poor mental health, people are more likely to avoid you. The analogy has perhaps guided the authors to make this report much more personal and sensitive. The evidence base is supported by a significant number of anecdotes that put the mental health issues and challenges into perspective. The Review first makes clear that mental health is something we all have. The authors are not equating the discussion of mental health with ill health, weakness, or particular disorders or conditions. Rather, the report notes that, whilst many are thriving, a number may be struggling and a few may be ill at any one time. We can all find ourselves in one or other category at different times in our lives. The report makes several welcome mentions of openness, removing stigma and not medicalising mental health challenges.

Perhaps the most important recommendation in the report is for the establishment of “core” and “enhanced” mental health standards for organisations. The core standards are much like stages of implementing a management system, with plans, communication tools, improving the work environment and regular monitoring. Eminently doable for organisations already operating a management system and those implementing HSE Stress at Work Management Standards. The enhanced standards call for transparency and accountability through reporting, disclosure and tailored support. They are recommended for larger organisations and the public sector who, in theory, have the resources to go further. In practice, cuts in public sector spending might be setting up NHS, MoD, Justice and Education sectors in particular to fail to hit the enhanced standards. And one might ask what the consequences of that could be? The NHS in particular is delivering mental health treatment as well as being Britain’s largest single employer. Whilst it could have the most to gain from seeing the standards implemented, it may also have the most strain to bear, trying to put additional bureaucratic measures in place. Right now, finding enough beds for people is challenging enough. 

In the private sector though, the review should be welcome, as it puts the case for investing in mental health very well. If you’re a business owner looking to make a new year's resolution, it’s a place to start.