“If you had broken your leg, would you accept help?”
“Yes,” I replied. “Of course.”
“Well, what you’re going through is equally debilitating. Actually much, much, more so.”
That conversation happened nine years ago in a small therapy room in Birmingham. I had been diagnosed with severe postnatal depression. I had borderline psychosis and up until that point, very little understanding of the debilitating nature of mental illness.
During this period, I discovered that society’s structures are not set up for providing positive mental health experiences. The sense of unanimous denial pervasive in our culture was equal to my own at that time. Indeed, the one had fuelled and misinformed the other. It wasn’t until I crossed over to a classroom with “direct experience” written across the door, that I was able to recognise how ill-equipped we are for enabling those living with illnesses like my own.
My journey back into work and the professional environment has made me acutely aware of the need for understanding, provision and policy in the workplace, that allow people living with mental illness not only to work, but to flourish. An important part of this journey, understanding exactly where we are now.
As things stand
1 in 6.8 people in the UK experience mental health problems in the workplace. That’s 14.7%; and those are just the reported cases. It is highly likely that a large proportion of employees don’t report their reasons for taking time off accurately due to the stigma still attached to mental illness.
Evidence suggests that 12.7% of all sickness absence in the UK can be attributed to mental health conditions, with women in full time employment nearly twice as likely to have a mental health problem as men.
According to the London School of Economics, investment in support could save UK businesses up to £8 billion per year, mainly due to the reduction in presenteeism and absenteeism. However, the financial argument aside (it’s now no secret that employee wellbeing boosts business productivity), mental health support is something companies should be investing in from an ethical point of view first and foremost.
It is telling, perhaps, that one of the most up-to-date sources for information regarding the prevalence of mental health issues amongst working people, was undertaken by the office of National statistics in 2000. Despite the damning statistics or rather, lack of them, there is good news as well. Future Learn says that, “UK business are committing greater efforts and finances to the provision of mental health support in response to covid and the great resignation”.
A recent survey of “1,000 key decision makers in business in the UK” revealed that “over 1 in 5 (21%) of business leaders state that they are willing to reevaluate their mental health policies”.
Platfform are an organisation enabling companies to implement this change. Based in South Wales, over the last year they have worked extensively in both the public and private sector, equipping companies with the tools to create a positive working environment.
Platfform takes a “whole organisation approach” in promoting “a happy workforce”. Mary Rogers, platfform’s business development director says, “training needs to include the workforce, management, senior leadership and directorship. This prevents us hitting ceilings so that the organisation as a whole can benefit”.
Mary also points out that “there is good mental health as well as bad”. Part of challenging the stigma surrounding the topic is to recognise that provision of a healthy workplace is relevant and beneficial to everyone.
Disability and discrimination
The Equality Act 2010 states that an employer “cannot discriminate against an employee (or candidate) with a mental illness that is classified as disability”. To qualify as a disability the following must apply.
it has a ‘substantial adverse effect’ on the life of an employee (for example, they regularly cannot focus on a task, or it takes them longer to do)
- it lasts at least 12 months, or is expected to
- it affects their ability to do their normal day-to-day activities (for example, interacting with people, following instructions or keeping to set working times)
This being the case, an employer must make reasonable adjustments to enable an individual to undertake their role comfortably. In its simplest form this requires, ensuring a safe working environment, protecting staff from discrimination and implementing risk assessments.
Even with this legal framework in place, poor mental health issues go unreported and there remain several grey areas.
According to the centreformentalhealth.org “A recent survey of 550 senior managers was commissioned by the Shaw Trust on how British businesses perceive mental health in the workplace. “Even among the HR directors interviewed…nearly half thought that five percent or less of the workforce would ever be affected by a mental health problem.” The Shaw Trust notes “an amazingly low level of true understanding on the part of senior executives”.
These statistics, when examined against those above, create a disjointed picture. To implement effective mental health provision for employees, employers must recognise the need for it. Both for the individual’s sake and for that of the company itself. These findings emphasise the importance of the work Platfform does in bringing a “whole organisation approach” to educate, inform and equip.
If reform and support are difficult to come by for those with a mental illness that more easily falls under the “disability banner” (Bi polar, postnatal depression and schizophrenia for example), then those experiencing mental health challenges that are not so clearly defined, will find themselves solely at the whim of their boss and that individuals’ particular point of view, and/or the resources at their disposal to adequately cater to employees needs.
A good place to start is to challenge internalised stigma. It took personal experience of a serious mental illness to shift my world view, but that shouldn’t have to be the case. Educating ourselves and those around us through research, frank conversation and listening to the experience and needs of those who are unwell, can reframe our perceptions and challenge any stigma we may be harbouring.
According to Platfform, “listening, really, really listening to staff opinions and needs” is one of the most powerful things a company can do in beginning to provide positive policies and journey towards a “happy workplace”.
As a copywriting company, we at Contented understand the power of words! Changing how we speak about mental health can go a long way in creating a more inclusive culture in our work environment. Referring to mental illness in the first person is a subtle change that can have a big impact. For example, choosing the phrase “that person has depression” rather than “that person is depressed”, reinforces that that individual is not wholly defined by their illness.
In the same way, abandoning an inaccurate use of language can help promote inclusivity. Using the word bi-polar to describe the weather or stating you’re “a bit OCD” because you like things tidy, can diminish the experience of those really struggling with these serious conditions.
Provision of up-to-date resources for those who disclose mental health issues in the workplace, can equip the individual to find help fast, combatting feelings of isolation. It is not a colleague or manager’s responsibility to ‘treat’ a person who chooses to share a particular difficulty, but they should have the relevant information at hand to enable access to help should it be requested.
Offering a flexible work model to those experiencing mental illness can have a huge impact on their ability to undertake a role effectively. The CIPD states that allowing an individual to work flexibly can enable them to “manage disability and long-term health conditions, as well as supporting their mental health and stress.”
There is no doubt that attitudes to mental health in the UK have shifted significantly in the last ten years. “83% of people think it’s more socially acceptable to discuss mental health than five years ago, and 69% of people are more aware of mental health issues themselves”.
With 43% of employees saying their mental health has worsened since the start of the pandemic and 31% of employees taking time off work due to mental health in 2021, there has not been a better time to strive for ways to make the working environment a more supportive, inclusive and ultimately, healthy place.
Days off taken due to Mental Health cost UK businesses 12.6bn in 2021 alone. It makes monetary as well as ethical sense, to invest in a “happy workplace” for what is our most valuable asset; our employees.