28/04/2015

By Doug Chapman, Head of Management & Leadership Capability, Thales Learning and Development

We live and work in a world where it is increasingly difficult to ‘switch off’ and detach ourselves from the things that demand our attention, whether that is news, social media, or work. For some of us, this is sadly having a negative impact on our mental health, as we feel like we always have to be ‘on,’ with little opportunity for genuine down time.

As employers, we have a responsibility to ensure employees are not suffering as a result of our actions. This is not only beneficial to the individuals who dedicate their time and energy to helping our businesses succeed, but also has a wider-reaching impact. Poor emotional health amongst staff can seriously hinder organisational success. According to recent research by ACAS, mental health issues are costing the UK economy £30 billion a year.

That statistic is alarming in itself, but other research suggests the problem is actually far greater than this. Last year, the government’s Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, released a report that said the total number of working days lost to mental illness in 2013 was around 70 million, costing the economy a staggering £70 to £100 billion.

Clearly, then, this is an issue which is not only extremely unpleasant for the affected individuals, but also detrimental to the wider economy and society as a whole.

Breaking the taboo

Perhaps the biggest barrier to dealing with any mental health issues in the workplace is the fact that many people do not feel comfortable discussing it. This could be for a number of reasons, but fear of being associated with weakness or failure is a common theme.

The problem seems to lie largely in the fact that society does not put mental health on the same footing as physical. While most people would be quite comfortable calling their line manager and saying they can’t come into work because of a cold or a migraine, it is likely that far fewer would feel as comfortable saying they couldn’t come in because they were suffering from stress, anxiety or depression. This makes it all the more difficult for employers to spot potential signs of suffering, particularly as employees don’t often want to talk about it with their boss.

What employers can do

Perhaps the first element to consider is prevention. The business world is increasingly fast-moving, and changing at an exponential rate. This means there is naturally going to be some additional pressure and instability. But the prevention aspect lies in how organisations manage that to limit the impact on their employees’ wellbeing.

Part of the problem stems from organisations putting pressure on people without giving them the necessary skills to deal with that pressure. Offering support, tools and resources to help them stay on their feet mentally can be hugely beneficial. Managers can play an important part in this as long as they are comfortable talking about mental health, asking people if they need help, and listening.

This echoes advice for managers provided on the NHS website. They say, “It is important for managers to be seen as approachable and having time for their staff,” citing “regular catch ups” as an effective way to start the conversation about mental health and make it “a normal part of line management.”

What individuals can do

The next thing to consider is how to support and help individuals to better manage their own emotional health in the workplace. This is where learning and development can play a key role, particularly in promoting ‘mental toughness,’ which is all about enabling people to be productive, regardless of their emotional state.

Mental toughness is made up of four key elements: the ‘four Cs.’ Firstly, there is commitment, i.e. how you respond to goals and targets. Then there is the challenge element – whether you see something as an opportunity or a threat. Then control, i.e. controlling your emotions and your circumstances. Finally, there is confidence, in your abilities and interpersonally. The concept behind mental toughness is that all of these factors can be developed.

But, more than anything, mental toughness is about reframing your thinking, becoming more self-aware, and changing the way you approach certain situations.

Simple, cost-effective changes

When it comes to managing emotional health, as an employer, the good news is that it needn’t require huge financial investment or an overhaul of company processes. Instead, what works really well is good, honest management and support that ensures employees feel trusted and respected.

But the question remains: how many employers will actually take action and help to mitigate the growing problem of poor mental health in the workplace, and how many will only pay lip service to it?