Mental health is everyone's business

paper chain of peopleLouise Ward, of the British Safety Council, explains what tools are available to address mental wellbeing in the workplace and why we all need to talk about it.

One in four employees in the UK has mental health problems. Symptoms include stress, anxiety and depression, which affect the person’s own performance and wellbeing, as well as that of other workers. 

Almost 82 per cent of SMEs are micro businesses, with under 10 employees. Due to their size and fewer resources, SMEs face unique challenges while dealing with workplace health and safety. Mental health issues, in particular, can affect small companies to a much greater extent than larger enterprises, because smaller organisations can’t afford to have employees not working to their full capacity.

Since 1957, the British Safety Council has been campaigning to keep workers healthy and safe. It helped to establish the British Wellness Council in 1979, which, ahead of its time, dealt with stress in the workplace, as well as other health-related issues. More recently, it has focused on workplace health and wellbeing, including mental health. In January 2017, the British Safety Council helped to launch the Mates in Mind programme, which provides information, support and training in mental health for the construction industry.

Spotting the signs

In September 2017, the British Safety Council approached Professor Dame Carol Black, a leading expert and passionate campaigner on good mental health in the workplace, to share her expertise in relation to mental health in the SME sector. Her practical advice has been recorded by the British Safety Council in a short film, Mental Health and SMEs.

“The signs that things are not well in a company are poor productivity and employee engagement, as well as various symptoms of stress, which express themselves in a growing propensity to take sick leave, increased turnover and presenteeism,” says Professor Black.

She suggests practical steps that every company, regardless of their size and budget, can take to introduce a culture that promotes good mental health. “You have to train your managers in people management skills and add to this a mental health component. Then they will be able to recognise the signs when an employee becomes less well. This approach should be complemented by training at a peer-to-peer level. Mental health first aid training will enable staff to provide support for their colleagues.

“This approach doesn’t cost very much, although it takes time to develop. It will lead to better staff engagement and productivity, benefiting both employees, their companies and the wider society. However, it has to come from the top,” concludes Professor Black.

Ending the stigma

Mental health was brought to people's attention in January 2017, when the prime minister commissioned a review into workplace mental health. Its recommendations were published in November 2017 in the report Thriving at Work. Unexpectedly, mental health became one of the corporate priorities in Britain.

The report incentivises companies to get on board with the mental health agenda, pointing out that mental ill health costs UK employers between £33 and £42 billion every year.

One of the main challenges of dealing with ill mental health in the workplace is the stigma associated with it, which makes it difficult for people to admit that they are affected by it, and to ask for help. The stigma is felt particularly strongly among men and in male-dominated working environments, such as construction. It is estimated that in this sector the number of deaths from suicide is 10 times or higher than those from fatal accidents. Hence the importance of such programmes as Mates in Mind.

Talking about mental health is one of the solutions for dealing with the stigma. The British Safety Council’s 45-minute training session, Start the Conversation, is designed to help all employees to do just this. It gets people thinking about mental health and talking about it. It aims to help employees feel more comfortable talking about their feelings. Similarly, the message of Time to Change’s awareness-raising video is to keep things simple. It shows that you don’t have to be an expert to make a difference to someone suffering from depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts.

Over the last few months, several organisations and mental health charities have started to provide practical assistance to employers of all sizes. For example, Mental Health First Aid England created posters based on the initiative Take Ten Together. They offer tips on how to start a 10-minute conversation with work colleagues and how to discuss problems, showing empathy and keeping the conversation positive.

Talking about mental health is also at the heart of many social media campaigns. Heads Together’s #OKtosay campaign released 10 films featuring people from all walks of life sharing the life-changing conversations that helped them to cope with mental health problems.

Employer resources

The resources are also being made available at the national level. The Department of Health and Public Health England announced it will be investing £15 million to train one million people in basic mental health 'first aid' skills. The programme, which will run from autumn 2018 until March 2021, will teach people how to recognise and respond effectively to signs of mental illness in others and improve personal resilience.

Looking ahead, the British Safety Council will be helping companies to deal with mental health issues at different levels. From early 2018, in addition to the ‘Start the conversation’ training session, the course ‘Managing the conversation’ for line managers will be launched, as well as the mental health first aid qualification.

In the coming months, we will also be campaigning with our partners in the industry and the leading mental health charities for the recognition that mental health has an equally important place in the workplace as physical health.

These efforts will contribute to reducing the stigma associated with ill mental health and will benefit all companies and their employees.

About the author

Louise Ward is policy standards and communications director at the British Safety Council.

A chartered health and safety professional with over 18 years’ experience in a variety of sectors, including nuclear power, facilities management and railway operations, Louise has been involved in the development of legislation, guidance material and regulatory policy. She has particular interests in professional development, mental health, wellbeing and technology.