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Mental health in the workplace: are you doing enough?

If you work in an office, chances are you’ve taken at least one sick day over the past year. With all those different bodies circulating in a room, the common cold plus other nasties are certain to do the rounds. You might have even been off longer with a more serious physical health issue, for example, a broken limb, torn ligament, or a surgical procedure.


Physical issues are easy enough to speak to your place of work about: “Boss, I’ve got appendicitis, I won’t be in for a while.” But what if it isn’t an external or visible health matter that stops you feeling okay to work?


Everyone is affected by mental health as well as physical health. Considering how many hours business owners and freelancers put into their working lives, it’s unsurprising that workplace and working environments have an effect on our mental well-being.


Searches on Google for the term ‘mental health’ have shot up by nearly 40% in the past two years, with ‘depression at work’ seeing a rise of almost 30%. It seems the public are waking up to the topic of mental health and opening up to discussions around this, especially when they are potentially correlated to work.


What does mental health mean?


Sometimes phrased as emotional health or well-being, mental health affects the way you think, feel, and behave. Around one in four people in Britain will experience mental health challenges in their lifetime. This can range from common mental health issues including anxiety, stress, and depression, to rarer forms such as bipolar and schizophrenia.


According to the Mental Health Foundation having good mental health means you are able to make the most of your potential, cope with life, and play a full part in your family, workplace, and community.


Whether you are experiencing good or challenging mental health is something only you can be aware of. We all have periods of feeling sad, angry, or irritated by our work environments and working life – however, for suffers of mental health issues these feelings can run a lot deeper and last more than just a few hours or days.


How does mental health affect your business?


The World Health Organisation (WHO) launched a study into “the health and economic benefits of investing in treating the most common mental illnesses” and found that without scaling up treatment available to sufferers of depression and anxiety (two of the most common mental health issues), the economy stands to lose 12 billion working days annually between now and 2030.


The cost of losing 12 billion working days to the global economy? £634 billion. The estimated cost of increasing counselling and antidepressant medication? £100 billion. The WHO found that governments on average spend only 3% of their health budgets on mental health. President of the World Bank Group, Jim Yong Kim, states: “This is not just a public health issue; it’s a development issue. We need to act now because the lost productivity is something the global economy simply cannot afford.”


On a smaller scale, UK business advice service ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) says that “mental health problems cost employers in the UK £30 billion a year through lost production, recruitment and absence”. The organisation, which specialises in employment law, goes on to say:


“The Centre for Mental Health charity estimate that employers should be able to cut the cost of mental health – in lost production and replacing staff – by about a third by improving their management of mental health at work.”


Is it the case that business owners and the UK Government should be investing more in mental health to see long-term economic benefits?


How can businesses support mental health?


Mind – a registered charity supporting mental health awareness – found that 30% of employees disagreed with the statement “I would feel able to talk openly with my line manager if I was feeling stressed”. One of the first steps a business can do to help remove the stigma surrounding mental health is to openly talk about it.


If you’re an employee of a small business and feel that you are experiencing a mental health issue, the best thing you can do is make a connection with your boss, or a member of staff who you feel comfortable discussing it with. If you don’t feel comfortable discussing the issue face to face, consider sending an email or writing a letter expressing the issue at hand.


According to Mind, a good message to send out to employees is that mental health will be treated in exactly the same way as physical health. If an employee breaks their arm and is out of work for a month, an employee experiencing a mental health issue will be treated with the same empathy and discretion.


The Equality Act 2010 is in place to ensure that businesses don’t discriminate against people with mental health issues, and protects those with a mental health issue when applying for jobs. The Equality Act is there for a reason and to give reassurance – remember this when discussing mental health issues with an employer.


But I’m my own boss – what can I do about mental health in the workplace?


Make time for yourself. Do you have a good work / life balance? Are you taking the time and space your brain and body deserve? The New Economics Foundation researched well-being and found that the five key elements to a healthier mindset involved connecting with people, being active, taking notice, learning, and giving.


If you feel that as a self-employed person you are experiencing mental health challenges, speak to your GP. If this isn’t an option, make time to speak with a friend or family member who might be able to help guide you to a supportive solution or assistance.


Actively taking steps to make your business more mental health aware can not only save you money in absenteeism, but put yourself as a front-runner in breaking the taboo surrounding mental health conversations in the workplace.

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