Mental health is one of the last remaining taboos in the workplace. Yet one in six workers in the U.K. experience depression, anxiety or stress which is a significant portion of the workforce. It also appears as if attitudes towards mental health in the workplace remain in the dark ages: 56% of employers say they wouldn’t hire someone with depression, according to a mental health report published this year.
H.R. plays a critical role in tackling the stigma surrounding mental health as well as supporting employees with existing mental health conditions. But it appears as if the H.R. profession often find themselves in the role of mental health counsellors, according to research by MetLife employee benefits. It puts too much pressure on the H.R. profession to act as mental health counsellors, argues Rachel Suff, public policy adviser, employee relations for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. “If you have an existing mental health condition in the workplace, then you need specialist support such as counselling through an employee assistance program or advice from a mental health charity.”
It makes perfect business sense for organizations to create a work culture that supports employees with good mental health, remarks Suff. “Our own research shows that two in five organizations are reporting an increase in stress and mental health conditions and there is the link to absenteeism. Among non-manual workers, it’s the third cause of long-term absence. If people aren’t feeling well mentally, then they will not feel engaged or committed at work.”
A major part of de-stigmatising mental health in the workplace is about creating a climate where employees feel they can disclose their condition to their line manager, comments Suff. “H.R. with occupational health can be the architects of an effective way of dealing with mental health.” Suff believes that H.R. can be the first port of call for people suffering mental health issues. “However, one of the main roles for H.R. is to signpost employees to mental health charities and explain what internal provision there is within the organization.”
One firm that created a culture of openness around mental health is Barclays which encouraged staff with mental health issues to come forward and talk about their experiences on the organization’s intranet, explains Poppy Jaman, program director for City Mental Health Alliance, a coalition of City firms addressing the stigma of mental health in the workplace. “That has normalized the conversation and demonstrated that employees at all levels are being supported. It also demonstrates that you can have mental health issues and have a fulfilling career and be a valued member of the organization.”
It’s a myth that an individual cannot recover from mental health conditions in the workplace and be a fully functioning, effective employee, remarks Jaman. “Recovery is absolutely possible and that could be someone being on medication or doing other things to keep themselves well. People with mental health problems are capable of holding down a job with very little adjustment.
However, attitudes towards mental health in the workplace are starting to change and some progressive organizations have established role models who champion mental health issues in the workplace and offer counselling through employee assistance programs. (See PricewaterhouseCoopers case study)
Yet there still remains a lot of work to be done by H.R. to educate managers and co-workers about their fellow employees who have mental health conditions. An Axa PPP healthcare survey revealed that two-thirds of managers don’t believe that stress, anxiety or depression is a serious enough reason for employees to take time off work. Line managers need to be trained to understand what good mental health is and to spot early warning signs of staff being under too much pressure, advises Suff. “It’s also about training managers to be approachable and educating them about the wide spectrum of mental health conditions out there. Managers can also refer employees to internal and external sources of support.”
PwC Case Study
Professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) wants a culture where people prize and develop their psychological and emotional health, explains Beth Taylor, mental health leader at PwC. The firm recently launched a group of six mental health advocates to support the de-stigmatization of mental health, adds Taylor. “They are all partners in our firm. We wanted leaders to talk about their experiences of mental health. We asked them to be senior role models and figureheads for mental health. Our colleagues can approach them on a one-to-one basis and talk to them about their own experiences and concerns. We don’t want these partners attempting to resolve any underlying mental health issues –they’ve been trained by the Samaritans to offer non-judgmental listening, empathy and signpost people to sources of external or internal help.” The firm also provides 24/7 access to counselling through its employee assistance program and early intervention cognitive behavioural therapy. But that’s not all. The firm developed a mental health toolkit in conjunction with Mind for its ‘people managers’, which is part of their role induction. “It includes guidance on spotting signs of possible mental health difficulty, what to do in a mental health emergency and where to go for support,” explains Taylor.
By Karen Higginbottom, as published in Forbes on 8th July 2016