Mental health stigma still an issue in business

This article is supplied by Bupa.

Pablo Vandenabeele

It is a sad reality that mental health prejudice still exists in business. An overwhelming number (94%) of UK business leaders admit that mental health prejudice is still present within their organisation.

Stress and other serious mental health conditions can have a huge impact on both individuals and employers. Having a workforce that is stressed or unhappy can lower productivity and, in turn, business performance.

Research published by Bupa in October 2014 has identified that while leaders are trying to address the issue of mental health by creating an open culture where employees are comfortable discussing conditions such as stress, depression and anxiety, this is not what employees are experiencing. Unfortunately, almost three-quarters of workers (70%) feel they cannot speak candidly about such issues.

This clearly shows the disconnect between what leaders think they are doing, and what employees believe they are actually achieving. So what can employers do to ensure that their organisation is breaking down the wall of silence that surrounds mental health issues?

Tackle the taboo

The first step is to challenge the stigma that is associated with mental health. A large proportion of leaders hold worrying opinions, labelling employees who suffer from mental health conditions as unpredictable (27%), erratic (22%) and weak (22%).

Meanwhile, almost half (47%) admit to treading on eggshells around people who have experienced a mental health condition, and one in five (22%) avoid talking to them altogether. 

This behaviour clearly has an impact on the culture and atmosphere of an organisation. Leaders need to address these biases and work to counter them at all levels of their business.

Leaders also have a role to play in providing employees with access to confidential support services, such as an employee assistance programme. This encourages employees to seek help at the first opportunity and means that they can be sure that they can speak to someone in absolute confidence. 

Being able to get support early is essential and that is why all our insurance customers can now access mental health therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy without the need to see a GP or psychiatrist first.

Retaining talent

High-pressure jobs and long hours are commonplace. Unfortunately, this brings with it an increased risk of suffering from a mental health condition. Worryingly, around a third (29%) of business leaders think that workers with a mental health illness will never return to their full potential, while one-fifth (20%) of employees who have experienced a mental health illness have felt under pressure to resign. Yet it is perfectly possible for employees to recover, perform and excel in their jobs, as demonstrated by Lloyd Banking Group’s chief executive officer Antonio Horta-Osório, who took a short period of temporary leave due to exhaustion in late 2011.

Managing mental health in the workplace is not just about offering support when someone is ill or requires treatment. Maintaining good mental health and wellbeing is key, which is where access to online resources can help, as well as proactively managing issues that can lead to mental health conditions, such as poor sleep.

Take practical action

Employers have a responsibility to eliminate practices or cultural habits that cause staff to become stressed or unhappy. 

Business leaders must be the champions of change, recognising that while stress is often a part of business life, it should not be allowed to become extreme or prolonged and potentially lead to more serious health conditions. It must also be made explicit that discussing mental health issues will not affect career development.

Managers need to spot problems and know how to support employees. Providing materials such as the National Institute of Clinical Excellence’s (Nice) Pathways for promoting mental wellbeing at work and Bupa’s Healthy minds online hub can help employees and managers understand what signs to look for, the treatments that are available and support better wellbeing in the workplace.

Dismantling the wall of silence that surrounds mental health issues in business is not an easy job. Employers need to rethink what they are doing and create a culture where everyone understands their role in ensuring a healthy, happy and productive workforce.

Dr Pablo Vandenabeele is clinical director of mental health at Bupa