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Everyone’s mental health: How inclusive is your workplace mental health strategy?

Business Disability Forum. Marketing photos

By Angela Matthews

Yesterday, Tuesday 10th October, was the eighth roundtable meeting of our Central Government Network, hosted once again by our colleagues at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. As it was also Mental Health Awareness Day, I presented a summary of recent research on mental health in and out of the workplace.


Mental health in the UK

I used a couple of sources. I started with a report titled Surviving or Thriving? The State of the UK’s Mental Health (Centre for Mental Health, May 2017). Findings showed, firstly, something that probably will not surprise many of us: the general state of mental health in the UK as a whole is not good. In fact, only 13% of the UK population rate their mental health as ‘good’.

I was very interested in the finding that people over the age of 55 generally reported better mental health. Having worked in older people’s mental health services with a consistently full clinic and a long waiting list, I was interested to look into this more. What seemed to be behind this statistic was that this appeared to be a group demographic who generally have more ‘spare’ time; the age bracket was perhaps something of a ‘red herring’. People with more time to pursue things that many sources (the Government, NHS, so called ‘self-help’ information sources) tell us are ‘good’ for developing mental resilience: taking a walk, doing gentle exercise, seeing friends, spending time with family, finding an interest, taking up a new hobby.

Time repeatedly comes up in other research on happiness and mental wellbeing: how we manage it, what we fill it with, and the decisions we make about how we perceive it.

The research also finds that depression and panic attacks are the two most common symptoms experienced by people in the UK. Note, symptoms. What this should signal to employers is that people may experience depression yet may not necessarily have a diagnosis of depression, and people may have panic attacks and not have a diagnosis of an anxiety related condition. I was also fascinated to see that the third most common experience was that related to Seasonal Affective Conditions. For employers, this means that employees may want to work in different ways during different seasons. I have previously worked with employees who have wanted to start earlier in the morning and finish earlier in the afternoon during winter months in order to avoid having to work when it is dark. The changing daylight quality can also affect employees with other types of conditions such as migraines, photosensitivity, or some visual impairments for example. Seasonal changes can have a significant impact on people’s emotions and mood.

There was one last point I drew out from this research, which I felt was insightful for employers to consider. What type of ‘conditions’ do you think of when you hear the term “mental health”? Examples given in the report are: anxiety, eating disorder, alcohol or drug dependence, postnatal depression, seasonal affectiveness, depression, bipolar, obsessive compulsive conditions, psychosis, post traumatic stress, panic attacks, schizophrenia, personality disorder, phobias. This is quite a wide ranging list and, of course, by no means extensive.

But here’s the statistic: 40% of people who have mental health issues do not see their own experience mentioned on this list. Forty per cent. How do our workplace wellbeing and mental health narratives reflect this when the common conditions we talk about are not recognised by 40% of people who have struggled with their mental health?

Mental health in an inclusive workforce

The research titled Mental Health at Work 2017 was released just a week ago by Business in the Community. One of the headline findings was that whilst 60% of employees experience a work related mental health issue, only just over half of this number (31%) had actually been diagnosed with a mental health condition. This reinforces my earlier point, that not everyone (only half, according to this research) experiencing mental health issues will have a diagnosed mental health condition. There is a distinction here, and it means that line managers need to be knowledgeable and skilled to manage both the mental wellbeing of their employees, and also support employees who are unwell due to mental ill health. The distinction is critical, and too often overlooked. A lack of understanding of the difference can risk unintended exclusion and it can also cause a mismatch of understanding and communication between the employee and line manager. This is perhaps represented by the report’s finding that 91% of line managers felt knew they had a key role in managing the wellbeing of their employees at work, yet only 13% of employees felt they could talk to their line managers about mental health issues.

Also add into the mix that senior leaders were found to think that employees were being supported with their mental health at work a lot more than employees themselves actually reported, and then we quickly have all three key stakeholders (employees, line managers, and senior leaders) on three very different wavelengths: a recipe for low productivity, distrust, and an ineffective employee-manager relationship.
Lastly, and more positively, 50% of employees were found to be more comfortable talking about mental health issues than they were a year ago. Put all of this research together and we may conclude this: mental health is generally declining, but we are getting better at talking about it.

Well, only some of us. People over 40 years old were found to be more comfortable discussing mental health issues with their line manager than younger employees, and employees from black, Asian, or minority ethnic backgrounds were less comfortable to talk about such issues (and also less likely top be diagnosed). This causes me to ask employers the question, how inclusive are our narratives about mental health in the workplace? We as a business sector have progressed immense strides with our diversity and inclusion agenda, yet research is showing that we perhaps have yet to develop a language and culture around workplace mental health which is as inclusive and diverse as the workforces we have created.

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