By Dr. Raj Kumar, Chief Medical Officer at cognitive health company MyCognition

The cost of mental illness to UK businesses currently totals £26 billion annually and a recent OECD report estimated that, at any one time, 1 in 5 individuals of working age suffer from a mental health problem. This means that virtually every single company is likely to be affected by mental health to some degree. Companies of all sizes therefore should recognise the need to take a proactive stance on mental health. However, especially in smaller organisations, responses tend to be ad hoc and of a purely reactive nature, which can often be too late to help employees.

Most companies will feel enough pressure on their budgets already and may be deterred from looking into health and wellness initiatives as they lack spare funds to commit to mental health. However, not to do so could cost them more in absenteeism and lower productivity. There are simple, cost-effective actions an employer can take that will have a big impact. Here I will outline how employers can boost their employees’ mental wellbeing without breaking the bank.

Tackle the taboo

Perhaps the most important thing companies can do is to tackle the taboo of mental health in the workplace. The social stigma attached to mental illness is due largely to lack of awareness and fear of the unknown, which can be addressed by talking about it openly and publically.

Many employers are making significant progress on this front, with prominent figures like Lloyd’s CEO Antonio Horta-Osorio or the COO of KPMG, Nick Baber, going public about their personal struggles with stress and depression. While this marks an important step forward, there’s no substitute for open discussion within the workplace. This is about thinking differently and communicating values, not splashing out on expensive projects or offsite trips. Start by creating anonymous channels to allow employees to safely communicate feedback, and look for existing initiatives that your company can join, such as the Time to Mind campaign which seeks to change public attitudes to mental illness: it’s free and it sends a positive message to the world, and to your employees.

Support your employees with a light touch

Provide information about mental health to your staff, which can be in the form of NHS leaflets or an internal newsletter. This should feel relevant to everyone in the team, so offer advice about healthy living, ideas about how to improve working habits, and links to support services or specialist advice in case people feel under excessive pressure.

This kind of initiative makes all the difference to some individuals, and contributes to building an inclusive environment, helping you retain and support valued employees.

Protect the work/life balance

A good work/life balance is important to mental health, as is taking regular breaks at work. Many of us work in a busy environment and getting away from our desks can sometimes be difficult. Employers need to demonstrate that time away from work is encouraged, and that each individual’s wellbeing is prioritised.

Lead by example: don’t spend all hours in the office or it sends the message that others are expected to as well. Instigating a ‘no food at your desk policy’ to encourage proper lunch breaks will not only help stress but also boost productivity and creativity. Hydration in air-conditioned offices is also a big problem: ensure staff take breaks to drink and refresh themselves.

For SMEs, commitments such as offering the right health insurance package will come in time, but watching out for your employees’ work rhythm should start from day one.

Strengthen the coping mechanisms of your workforce

A healthy cognition is essential for good mental health. Consider introducing cognitive training programs in the workplace to provide employees with a structured way to improve their cognition.
MyCognition runs programmes for businesses of all sizes. The first part of the programme is an online cognitive assessment - MyCQPro – to evaluate the cognitive health of individuals. This helps to make recommendations about who might need support such as cognitive training and/or specialist medical help.

Employees who have recently suffered emotional strain, for instance, might feel a knock-on effect on their cognitive health, and find their attention flagging or their ability to plan strategically impaired. A test like MyCQPro, taken discreetly and in their own time, helps them identify these imbalances. Employees can then take appropriate measures to get back on the road to health, which may also benefit them by leading to higher performance at work.

Don’t fall into the minimalist trap – go green

‘Lean offices’, devoid of distractions and clutter, are a popular model designed to focus employees on the task at hand. However, working in an office with plants and more furniture is actually healthy and good for the mind. This intuitive idea has recently been borne out by scientific research: the 2014 ‘Green versus lean office space’ report found that working in sight of plants was associated with productivity levels 15% higher than working in minimalist offices.

For a few hundred pounds you could change the look of your office, breathe healthier air and boost your employees’ mental health and productivity, so don’t fall into the minimalist trap.

Mental health provision is a daunting challenge, which only becomes more relevant as work follows us home in the mobile era and rising retirement ages pose the challenge of cognitive decline. However, this is not just a task for wealthy companies with budgets to spare, but part of the duty of care shared by all employers.

The answer begins with information and a culture of awareness and openness. By combining this with practical, cost-effective commitments such as screening technologies and smart work practices, SMEs can tackle mental health without breaking the bank and make a vast difference to the millions of workers who would benefit greatly from these important and positive changes.