Management

Get your head round mental health

5 January 2012

Mental health is one of the biggest problems facing businesses today. Yet, as Jamie Patterson explains, the issues are often ignored.

Mental health conditions were the most common cause of sustained absence for both manual and non-manual workers according to the Confederation of British Industry’s 2011 Absence and Workplace Health Survey. Indeed, poor mental health now accounts for more long-term absence from work than chronic back pain, musculoskeletal disorders and even cancer.

Sadly, the stigma associated with mental health conditions makes it difficult for people to discuss their problems with close friends, let alone colleagues or employers. What some initially fail to realise is that poor mental health can affect anyone, whether they are directors or road maintenance labourers. Those in roles that combine high demands with low levels of control are particularly at risk. A recent survey from the CIOB revealed that out of more than 1,000 construction industry professionals — 31.4% of respondents, many in management positions — felt under significant stress at work.

Our tendency to keep problems to ourselves is pushing mental health issues below the radar. Sweeping things under the carpet can be all too easy in the macho environment of a construction site. Paul Farmer, chief executive of mental health charity MIND, says:

“The image of the tough male who doesn’t show emotion is certainly a factor, with one third of men saying they would be embarrassed to see a GP for feelings of depression. It can be incredibly hard for men in this industry to come forward and discuss stress and mental health with their boss.”

Jacquie Forbes, a former director in the construction industry and now director of residential development at Halliday Fraser Munro, recalls that the stigma attached to mental health often prevented people coming forward to talk about their problems. “In some cases, mental health issues were recognised by the company. Discussions with the employee went ahead and counselling was offered. Unfortunately, this help was turned down because many employees were worried about the implications of having mental health problems on their work record.”

In the UK, some construction companies claim they have never had an employee suffering from mental health problems, but national statistics tell a different story. According to the Mental Health Foundation, one in four people will be affected by some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year.

With the World Health Organisation predicting depression to be the world’s second biggest health problem by 2020, mental illness in the workplace must be a priority for employers. In addition to the human cost of unaddressed mental health issues, there is also a financial one, with absences due to sickness costing British businesses £26bn a year in lost productivity.

What can managers do?

First, remove the stigma by making mental health in the workplace as important as physical well-being. Specially designed schemes can help managers to be more mental health savvy. The Healthy Working Lives Awards and Mental Health Commendation Awards (NHS Scotland) encourage and help employers to integrate well-being activities and policies into existing structures. 

Increased awareness will allow managers to spot potential problems. Significant changes in employees’ performance and behaviour can be an indicator of a well-being issue. Don’t be afraid to speak to someone who may be displaying signs of difficulty, sometimes it can be a relief that someone has made the first move.

On a day-to-day basis, managers should interact with their staff and be as available and approachable as possible. Managers are in a prime position to be positive role models too. This isn’t just about keeping the fruit bowl topped up; exercise is a great stress-buster.

Set the example: cycle to work, run at lunchtime, or participate in a sponsored walk. Take the lead and you might be surprised who joins in.

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