It’s a well known statistic that one in four people will suffer mental ill health in their lifetime. That figure alone is proof that no group in society is invulnerable, yet we know there is still much work to do to break down the stigma which surrounds the topic. A big part of that challenge lies in demystifying mental health. Businesses have a role in providing as many access points as possible for its discussion, and in moving away from a polarised (and often medicalised) perspective that for many is irrelevant, or worse still, intimidating.
Alongside Professor Cary Cooper, I’ve been involved in measuring the psychological wellbeing of workforces across the UK for over 10 years. If you ask people directly about the state of their mental health, a typical reply is “fine”. Avoiding the cult of fine requires a reframing of the question, to drill down into some of the pressures of everyday working life. This is when people intuitively recognise mental wellbeing as a spectrum on which you can move up or down on a daily basis. Survey data at Robertson Cooper including more than 100,000 people in the UK working population, found 30% say they sometimes feel unable to cope, 32% have mood swings and 18% report having experienced panic or anxiety attacks.
The traditional response of business has been to provide employee assistance programmes (EAPs) to facilitate expert guidance and support – however, by their nature EAPs are reactive and not preventative; they rely on referrals typically only made when mental ill health has had a visible effect within the work environment.
Significant momentum has been generated over the past decade in improving this approach, with more and more organisations looking to mainstream a more preventative approach to managing and supporting mental wellbeing. In part that’s about asking how we can help our people thrive, feel good and enjoy their work – rather than the negative starting point of reducing sickness absence or eliminating low engagement.
The business benefits of supporting high levels of psychological wellbeing have been well established by any number of longitudinal studies, and that in part has helped to gain a greater audience for the mental health debate. But there are still pockets in long-established cultures where speaking about psychological pressures, let alone seeking support, is taboo.
The issues in the City are well documented, but it isn’t just those tough, high-performance stereotypes which need to examine their working practices and norms. The NHS is one example where continual change and sometimes conflicting management priorities have prompted a rethink. A recent audit found that it needed to do more to support the health and mental wellbeing of its staff. As set out in the latest NHS business plan, the whole organisation is now looking for good employee mental health to drive patient care. We know that it’s all too rare for senior people to speak out about mental health – a challenge I hope some will take up during Depression Awareness Week.
It can be a daunting task for businesses to design a mental wellbeing strategy. The factors that influence psychological wellbeing, however are ones we would recognise instinctively as individuals, from the experience of managing our own work and lives. Those include the pressure of workloads, personal relationships, change and insecurity, and the kind of resources and support available to do the job. Taken together, these account for a major part (37% according to our research) of the disparity between employees with high and low levels of psychological wellbeing, with the degree of individual control in a role being the strongest predictor of good mental health.
As a society we recognise the imperative of control to achieve work-life balance, and the benefits it can bring, but at the employer level the idea depends fundamentally on how business leaders view their staff, and how business-level support is brought to life as an authentic part of the culture.
Being able to hear what your employees are telling you – based on their own individual styles, lives and pressures – is a trick that the most mentally healthy businesses are able to pull off. But working people across the nation also have a responsibility to make themselves heard and take personal responsibility for their own health. It’s part of the new psychological contract. Being ready to inform that discussion, and take advantage of greater control and support, will not only create better lives but a more sustainable UK economy too.
This article first appeared on ‘The Guardian’ on 29 April 2014.