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Mental health in business: Spotting the signs and supporting your staff

This could be the most important article you read could even save someone's life. AVTE looks at the shocking reality of mental health at work

If someone was struggling with their mental health at your place of work, would you be able to spot the signs? Would you know how to help? As a business owner and/or manager, are you aware of your responsibilities? AVTE’s editor Michael Garwood examines the very real issues around mental health in business…

There are many different levels of mental health ranging from good where everything is fine – to more serious conditions, such as stress, anxiety, and depression. As human beings, we all fit into one or more of those categories at some point in our life – some short-term, whilst some may impact us for the rest of life. How we manage our mental health, or respond to those suffering with theirs, is vitally important, and – potentially even life-saving.

According to reports, one in every four adults living in the U.K. will experience some form of mental health problem this year. The reasons can be wide and varied, and are always unique to an individual. These may cause – for example, a lack of sleep or panic attacks; difficulty in concentrating; and low confidence. In England, figures show that one in six people now experience a common mental health problem (such as anxiety and depression) in any given week.

The implications of mental health issues for businesses are significant. It’s estimated that 15 in every 100 people have an existing mental health condition at work (take a look around). The final impact – based on absence and reduced performance – costs employers up to £42 billion a year. As a whole, the cost of poor mental health to the U.K. economy is estimated to be as high as £99 billion.

In recent years, the discussion around mental health has become less taboo. Celebrities, high profile business execs, and numerous national campaigns spearheaded by leading health organisations have all contributed in taking the subject out of the dark and into the public light, and helping to erode the perceived or assumed stigma surrounding it along the way.

However, whilst attitudes are improving, there still remains some way to go, particularly in business.

Perhaps most tellingly, Gillian Connor, from the national mental health charity Rethink Mental Illness, added: “Mental health can affect all of us at any given time. Mental health is not selective. It doesn’t target a specific gender, people with a specific job title, or how much they earn. There is no standard fit or model to work off. It’s very discriminate. We are all individual human beings. We all come with our own context and look at life through a different lens and we all have our own triggers.”

Spotting the signs

Addressing the issues around mental health can (crudely) be of tremendous benefit, helping not only to enhance your reputation but also financially.

To give that some context, it’s now estimated that better mental health support in the workplace can create savings of up to £8 billion per year.

“By looking after employee’s mental wellbeing, staff morale and loyalty, innovation, productivity and profits will rise,” – Deloitte wrote in a recent report.

There are numerous ways in which employers and employees can help support their colleagues, the majority of which require minimal (if any) investment, or force staff to play the role of a mental health professional, such as a therapist.


• Difficulty sleeping

• Feeling sad

• Hallucinating

• Hearing voices

• Low self-esteem

• Mood swings

• Negative thinking

• Racing thoughts

• Self-harm

• Suicidal thoughts

• Weight loss

According to figures published in the Thriving at Work Report – commissioned by U.K. prime-minister – 11 per cent of employees discussed a recent mental health problem with their line manager in 2017, whilst half of employees say they would not discuss mental health with their line manager. Eight in 10 employers report no cases of employees disclosing a condition.

The figures highlight the sensitivity around the subject and the need and necessity for companies, particularly line managers, to get to know their staff.

According to Connor – whose charity has seen a significant rise in providing organisations with mental health training and awareness courses, identifying possible concerns and intervention (if required) is key. The first and clearest sign to look out for, as simple as it may seem, if someone is behaving in a way that’s that’s not considered normal for that person.

“Acting differently is often a sign that they are struggling in some form,” explained Connor. “If they’re normally happy, bubbly and talkative, but all of a sudden they seem quiet, distracted, or even withdrawn, then there’s clearly something that’s not right.

“Stress or anxiety is a reaction to feeling threatened or the perceived feeling of being threatened and can have a major impact on someone’s well being.”

She continued: “For line managers, the importance of getting to know your staff cannot be underestimated. When you ask someone how they are, actually mean it as a question and not an almost instinctive throwaway acknowledgment. If you line manage properly, then you’ll take notice of your staff and you should (not always) be able to get to know them well enough to identify when something is and isn’t normal.”

Trigger unhappy

Understanding these signs and learning to identify certain triggers from staff – triggers they may not even acknowledge themselves at the time, is also crucial to helping alleviate a problem before it potentially spirals out of control.

“They know their triggers and how to rebalance themselves when they’re well, but also when they’re unwell. It’s easy to lose sight of that,” continued, Connor. “Having other people around who know the signs is hugely important. All companies are capable of embarking on that journey.”


However, achieving these levels of relationships centre heavily around the culture and environment created at a workplace – one that encourages communication and provides an open and trusted space, where staff feel comfortable enough to speak up if they have a problem (such as pressures over workloads, bullying, or even something outside of work) which could be impacting their mental wellbeing and their performance at work.

According to Mind, around 300,000 people lose their job each year due to a mental health problem – a figure which could have been significantly reduced if the correct framework was provided by employers. The impact of encouraging staff to be honest that ‘it’s ok to not be ok’ is supported cannot be underestimated.

It’s currently estimated that as many as 95 per cent of people who take time off work due to a stress-related health issue will lie to their employer and instead use a physical sickness condition as reason for their absence. This is largely related to fears over not being taken seriously, a lack of support, or that it might be perceived as a weakness that may harm their immediate or and/or future career.”

Connor continued: “It’s a visibility thing. It’s this notion that if you’re feeling mentally unwell, not feeling good, overworked, stressed, and a bit overwhelmed that it’s some sort of weakness to say something. A fear that you may be judged or that it may harm your career. A good working environment can help to eliminate these concerns.”

In addition, there is also a growing issue around presenteeism, where staff that are struggling with their health (both physical and mental) but continue to go into work. This is heavily linked to an increase in stress, anxiety, and depression cases in the U.K. Again, something that could potentially be cut with the right framework.

The Thriving at Work Report sets out what it calls six “mental health core standards,” a framework for a set of actions which it believes all organisations in the country are capable of implementing quickly. These include:

  • Businesses to produce, implement, and communicate a mental health at work plan
  • Develop mental health awareness among employees.
  • Encourage open conversations about mental health and the support available when employees are struggling.
  • Provide your employees with good working conditions.
  • Promote effective people management.
  • Routinely monitor employee mental health and wellbeing

Working whilst sick 

According to the latest CIPD – the professional body for HR and people development – Health and Well-being at Work survey, the number of people working whilst ill is at a record high in the UK, tripling since 2010. Of the 1,000 plus employee respondents to the 2018 survey, 86 per cent said they had observed presenteeism in their organisation over the last 12 months, compared with 72 per cent in 2016 and 26 per cent in 2010.

“Good employers recognise the value of their staff and will try to accommodate their staff when they’re going through different things when they’re trying to juggle things when they’re outside of work,” said Connor. “If somebody had a bereavement, companies have a policy around compassionate leave. So therefore, if somebody is going through a breakup, why wouldn’t you recognise or have that discussion that they’re probably not going to be able to work at 100 percent? Having said that, it’s also about not making an assumption because for some people, work can be a relief or they might want to carry on as normal. it goes back to the conversation.”

Life Exists Outside of Work, Too

Connor has urged employers to help support their employees for matters related not just to things in work, but also out of it. Employers are obligated to ensure their employees should not leave work in worse health than when they arrived based on their own obligations – however, for many people, a mental health condition is an extension of what’s happening in their personal life. Discussing how an employer can help provide additional support, such as flexible working hours or even time off, could benefit everyone.

Work and life balance

The survey also found that ‘leaveism’, which sees people working through their annual leave – for example, due to concerns around workloads – is also a growing problem, with more than two-thirds of respondents (69 per cent) reporting incidents in their organisation over the last year.

Just a quarter of respondents that have experienced presenteeism (25 per cent) say their organisation has taken steps to discourage it.

Rachel Suff, senior employment relations adviser at the CIPD, commented: “This survey shines a light on the shocking scale of presenteeism and leaveism we have in the U.K., as people feel under even more pressure at work. Increasingly the threats to well-being in the modern workplace are psychological rather than physical, and yet too few organisations are discouraging unhealthy workplace practices and tackling stress, which is strongly linked to health conditions such as anxiety and depression.”

She continued: “In order to encourage a healthy workplace, organisations need to look beyond sickness absence rates alone and develop a solid, evidence-based understanding of the underlying causes of work-related stress and unhealthy behaviour like presenteeism.

“If you feel you have to be at work when you’re not physically or mentally fit to do so, then that’s not a healthy culture and that’s not going to benefit the business in the long term,” Connor added.

“The best companies are the ones that recognise we all have mental health and it isn’t something to be taken for granted,” said Connor. “Companies that tell their staff that it’s okay to have good days and to have bad days, for me, create the foundation for a good culture. It gives people permission to talk and permission to feel that it’s ok to talk about it when they’re struggling.”

Proactive not reactive

According to the previously mentioned Deloitte At a Tipping Point, Workplace Mental Health and Wellbeing report, it’s estimated that four in 10 organisations (39 percent) now have policies or systems in place to support employees with common mental health. However, whilst this is great news, Connor admitted that for many of the clients that approach her and her team regarding training on mental health in the workplace, it’s sometimes, following the loss of a colleague to suicide and learning what they could have perhaps done differently.

One of the most concerning statistics you’ll read in this article today, is that the biggest killer of men between the age of 18-45 is suicide.

And whilst, again statistically, women in full-time employment are nearly twice as likely to have a common mental health problem as full-time –employed men (19.8 per cent vs 10.9 per cent), it is widely held believed that men are more likely to suffer in silence.

“The difference between men and women when it comes to mental health is a concern,” said Connor. “We think a big reason for that is because men don’t share. Why? We believe it’s because there is a perception or an expectation among men that they don’t have permission to talk about their feelings and that they need to be strong. Keeping that to themselves, building up all those feelings and to having that reassurance and that there is support. We have men taking their own lives and that needs to stop.”

“Keeping things to yourself is the worst thing you can do and for businesses to implement some form of support network, no matter how small, it could be a lifeline for someone. A good business will look after its staff.”

Help is at hand: Know your options

Should an employee choose to discuss their mental health problems with their employer or not, it’s important they understand the options available to them.

For many organisations, they will already be signed up to an Employment Assistant Programme (EAP) scheme — which are normally free and provide dedicated 24/7 telephone support and, in some instances, free counseling.

“When you consider the wait for NHS counseling can be months and months with a GP referral, that’s a fantastic service, said Connor..”

If not an option, requesting double appointments with a GP is encouraged, whilst contacting the Samaritans (not just for those considering suicide) is an option.

Connor added: “Those are three examples that people may not think about immediately. Knowing what support is available can be hugely helpful and the starting point to getting better.”

For more advice, please visit: Rethink Mental 

For immediate support, please contact the Samaritans: 116 123 (from any phone)