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Karen Steadman
Senior Researcher
Karen Steadman

Good work is good mental health – getting the message to business leaders

Authors: Karen Steadman

13 June 2014

Forty years ago the Health and Safety at Work etc Act was introduced to protect employee health at work. Though the fundamentals have remained the same over this time, our definition of health in this context has changed quite considerably – particularly in light of the growth in awareness and acknowledgment of the relationship between mental health and work. Despite this shift, for many employers the importance of addressing employee mental health still trails far behind physical health.

One in 6 people of working age experience a mental health condition at any one time, with a further 1 in 6 experiencing distressing symptoms.   Additionally, more deal with the consequences of someone close to them experiencing poor mental health. We know that poor mental health has a considerable  impact on  businesses – of the estimated £70 million annual cost of poor mental health to the UK, over half is thought to be related to reduced labour market productivity (OECD 2014).

In many ways, the business case has already been made– so the question remains:  Why aren’t business leaders interested in driving an improved mental health agenda in their organisations?

Well, first the good news – many are.  There are excellent examples of expansive mental health programs from organisations such as BT, Unilever, Allianz and the Royal Mail, (follow  links)  and the cause is being pushed by business-led organisations such as Business In The Community (BITC) and the City Mental Health Alliance. Often the messages they promote are simple: we need to allow people the opportunity to start conversations about mental health, safe in the knowledge that if they need it, they will have the support of the organisation. Many organisations have mental health related policies in place already – this need to be well-communicated and well-implemented throughout organisations to show that it is an issue the organisation is interested in.

These examples of excellent organisational leadership in mental health are backed up by survey data which indicates that attitudes among senior leaders to the benefits of promoting employee wellbeing are changing for the better.  

The issue of how to convince organisations and business leaders who have not recognised the importance of improving employee mental health remains. Often, it’ll take more than just making the financial case – senior leaders doubtless have many proposals for money-saving ideas coming across their desks everyday. So when considering the arguments for positive mental health wellbeing interventions, ideas need to be backed up with the extra benefits of creating a  ‘mentally healthy’ organisation -  including  more positive  corporate branding, being able to position themselves as an employer of choice and fulfilling CSR pledges. What’s important to remember is that interventions that improve the wellbeing of those with mental health issues in the workplace will often also have a positive impact on everyone else too – making these changes will provide a better work environment for everyone. 

Different messages will hit home with different people – and different people will have different levels of awareness of the nature of the problems and what can be done. Top tips for getting the right messages across are:  find the right person, show them the problem, show them the solution and keep it simple!

Details of other Work Foundation partner roundtables on mental click are available here