25 May 2024

Because our minds matter

Executive Education
| The European |

Workplace cultures around the world have shifted drastically in recent decades. Before the advent of mobile phones, the internet and collaboration tools that enable staff to be on-call at all times, most employees could clock out of the nine to five and forget about their jobs. Now, instant communication is setting new expectations for employees and placing added strain on their mental health.

Just 9% of adults in the UK haven’t experienced work-related stress and more than one in five workers report feeling moderate to high levels of workplace stress at least several times a week. The consequences of mental health issues can be dramatic for businesses, employees and customers.

According to the “Britain’s Healthiest Workplace” (BHW) study published by health insurer VitalityHealth, the annual cost of poor mental health for businesses is estimated to be £17.2 billion each year. Stress in the workplace and presenteeism are two of the most pressing challenges that drive these losses.

Working while being unwell, due to either physical or mental health issues, now accounts for 55 minutes of every lost productive hour. Perhaps one of the most concerning findings in the BHW study was the prevalence of poor mental health among young people who are just entering the workplace or have only been working for a few years. Compared to older workers, the younger group are more likely to report unhealthy eating habits, walk less, have lower quality sleep, binge drink more often and face depression at higher levels.

As younger generations rise up the career ladder and become a more integral part of the working world at all levels, the impact of negative mental health issues will only become more damaging. Forward-thinking businesses have realised the importance of prioritising employee mental health and doing more than just paying lip-service to employee wellbeing.

One-off talks or disjointed initiatives without full support from corporate leadership can’t be expected to meet the complicated needs of employees, especially if the workplace culture remains extremely stressful.

“When you compare the companies that take part in our BHW survey who don’t have a health and wellbeing policy in place, with companies that consistently prioritise employee health and wellbeing, we actually see a 30% to 40% reduction in productivity loss linked to ill-health. These type of numbers are hard for any company to ignore,” explains Dr Keith Klintworth, managing director of VitalityHealth.

Culture fit

There’s no question that businesses operating in different industries will face distinct obstacles when it comes to their employees mental health and certain firms will be more likely to have staff who deal with serious issues. Investment bankers, traders and lawyers are well-known for working long hours and dealing with high-stress situations. On top of these everyday demands, admitting to having mental health problems can be viewed as a weakness rather than a strength, leading many workers in highly competitive sectors to simply hide their difficulties.

“We are facing a mental health epidemic,” says Alison Unsted, Head of Strategy and Operations at the City Mental Health Alliance (CMHA), an alliance of City [London] businesses working to foster mentally healthy workplaces. “Every 40 seconds, globally, someone dies by suicide, while the World Health Organisation predicts that by 2030 mental ill health will be the leading cause of ill health and morbidity.”

Personal conflict in the workplace can also create a negative working environment and contribute to poor mental health for not just the employees involved but also others who have to work in such a toxic office space.

“We know many individuals still fear the consequence of speaking up and if not challenged and dealt with appropriately, can lead to a person experiencing distress and often deciding to leave their employment,” adds Ms Unsted.

CEOs and leading executives are at particular risk of mental health troubles due to the immense pressure they are under to lead major businesses and the fact they hold ultimate responsibility for thousands of employees. Lloyds Banking Group CEO António Horta-Osório has led the way for high-profile executives to be open about their mental health after publicly speaking about his personal experience with stress and exhaustion.

Earlier this year, Mr Horta-Osório pushed for all senior executives at Lloyds Banking Group to undertake a mental awareness programme and trained thousands of employees in mental health first aid. Mr Horta-Osório is just one example of CEOs who are sharing their own experiences of mental health issues and making it easier for leaders to share any issues they are going through.

From wellness coaches, regular personal training to visiting a therapist and meeting with other executives, CEOs can keep their mental health in check and ensure that they have a solid support network when times get tough.

Fulfilling environment

Creating a working environment where staff at all levels of an organisation feel secure and comfortable is a goal for the vast majority of businesses. But few are fully able to achieve this unless staff wellness is made a top corporate priority and programmes are introduced to support employees in all areas of their mental health.

Finding time to visit a GP or mental health professional can be difficult for employees who don’t have a level of flexible working or those who fear they will be seen as taking unnecessary time off work. Traditional face-to-face forms of health care may prove time-consuming for staff who have to travel back and forth between a doctors practice and work, meaning some staff simply put off these visits or even decide to not go at all.

Technological solutions can help solve this problem by offering instant access to healthcare through smartphone apps. Employee benefits provider Unum recently launched the Help@hand app to give employees and their families the ability to have video consultations with UK-based GPs at anytime 24-hours a day, use of mental health support services and personalised physiotherapy treatments.

“By providing access to medical support such as this, Help@hand helps employees take control of their health and wellbeing needs, and plan appointments and treatment around their work and life commitments which means problems can be treated quickly,” adds Ambika Fraser, Head of Proposition at Unum.

There is no single initiative that businesses can introduce which will transform employee wellbeing and solve all mental health challenges in the workplace. Rather, a comprehensive mix of tailored programmes, events and activities need to be considered by companies to ensure the right programmes are in place for all staff.

Developer and asset management firm Wellington Place are in the unique position of offering wellbeing and mental health solutions for both their own staff and the occupants of the modern office spaces in their 22-acre mixed-use community project in Leeds.

“Not only do we want to help support in the attraction and retention of the very best people for the businesses here, we want to create a happy, healthy and productive workforce, which is central to the Wellington Place community,” says Dominque Simcox, Head of Customer Experience at Wellington Place.

Innovative tech tools can play a vital role in combating complex mental health issues but preventative workshops that provide staff with the skills and knowledge to build their mental health are equally relevant in the vast majority of workplaces. For example, Wellington Place offer Time and Stress Management and Happiness in the Workplace workshops to encourage businesses who occupy the site to start talking about mental health at work and reduce the stigma around discussing these issues openly.

These initiatives can produce genuine bottom-line benefits for employers, too. Wellington Place found their programme of events and activities resulted in around £1.7m of wellbeing benefits from 2017 to 2018. Leading businesses of today don’t just focus on issues directly related to work that can impact mental health negatively with many personal factors often being brought into the working environment.

By offering talks on nutrition, health advice and even relationship counselling, firms like Wellington Place can help ensure the work-life balance is as fair as possible. Investing in mental health programmes is now a necessity for businesses who want to promote employee wellbeing, make their workforce as productive as possible and give staff more resilience against potential mental health problems.

“Culture in the workplace is fast becoming the number one driving factor for attracting and retaining talent. No longer is it enough for companies to just pay a good salary, as often this is fairly static across the industry. If employees are unhappy and have poor mental health, this can in turn affect their performance at work and make them feel isolated,” concludes Ms Simcox.

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