According to the UK’s leading business advisors, Deloitte, one in four of the country’s population will suffer from health issues in any given year and one in six of those will be mental health related. When we do the maths, this equates to in excess of five million of the country’s working population of 31 million suffering from a mental health issue every single year.

With the average time spent at work equating to around one-third of a person’s available hours, there is the likelihood that issues concerning an individual’s wellbeing and general health may be linked to employment. Apart from the obvious implications facing employers concerning litigation and compensation, there are other, even more, damaging aspects linked to poor workplace health.

What the UK government has to say about mental health in the workplace

In their latest online publication, as recently as April 2018, the UK government opens its discourse on the subject of workplace health by advising its readers in no uncertain terms that “employment is a primary determinant of health”. If that isn’t enough to make employers sit up and take notice of the potential health issues that are going to continue to come their way, they can rest assured that their employees are already “well informed”.

Apart from the raft of physical disadvantages that include morbidity and even mortality, poor mental health and even suicide are also cited as direct results of long-term unemployment. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to put two and two together and discover the connection between poor health in the workplace and its often subsequent impact on long-term unemployment.

The government’s own website provides some startling statistics that concur with those proffered by Deloitte and other industry experts. They cite one out of every five of those in “ill health” as having a mental health-related illness.

Meeting the challenges of workplace health

As with everything in business, there is always a cost involved with managing employee health and the distinct lack of any government financial incentives isn’t likely to offer such businesses a lifeline any time soon. The disturbing truth is that all businesses need to become proactive in workplace health and that means (as is nearly always the case) that business owners and managers need to find workable solutions themselves.

However, taking positive action on workplace mental health will also save money in the form of staff absences and productivity. When people are suffering with their mental health, the support you can offer them can make the difference between them being off work in the long term, and them managing their day-to-day activities with you.

Could it be time for a review?

It could be fair to say that in the past, employers have found it necessary to deal with their employees’ health-related inabilities and subsequent absences from work through a seemingly punitive system.

While that may never have been the original intent behind the traditional and long-established methods of dealing with ill health at work, it is something that has probably evolved as a working “checks and balances” mechanism.

There is now more up-to-date understanding and mutual cooperation between employers and employees and perhaps there also needs to be a more honest and open dialogue. This would facilitate the ability of both parties to understand the other’s desired outcomes and provide the transparency and the environment that allows them to do exactly that.

Making the right noises

Much of how employers have dealt with health issues at work in the past has been motivated out of a necessity to comply with legislation and avoid the ramifications of non-compliance.

This method of managing health in the workplace is no longer likely to “cut the mustard” and there is now a recognised need for real and meaningful support especially in the area of mental health issues.

Enhanced productivity

Any employer that doesn’t consider its workforce to be its number one asset is already misguided. Bearing the value of this commodity in mind, it is yet another good reason why businesses benefit from the positive management of mental health issues in the workplace.

A well and “work satisfied” workforce is far more likely to be productive than one that is constantly suppressing health issues that it suspects are not going to be well received by their HR department or manager.

Positive support from management is proven to assist employees in achieving their full working potential and if that isn’t good news for any business nothing is. In fact, research conducted among the top FTSE 100 companies clearly demonstrates that those that gave priority to the wellbeing of their employees outperformed the rest by ten percent.

Mental health support in the workplace

So, what does good mental health support look like in the workplace? It starts with supportive managers and supervisors, who are aware of the issues their juniors may be experiencing and offer help where appropriate. This might include allowing them time off work for mental health appointments, allowing them to work part time for as long as they need to, or looking at flexi time that allows them to, say, start later in the day to manage fatigue that occurs as a result of psychiatric medication they may be taking.

Other initiatives can also be undertaken by a business that wants to support its employees who are suffering any kind of mental health crisis. They may want to recruit a counsellor on staff, or buy into an “on call”-style counselling service, where their employees can ring a helpline at any time if they are experiencing extreme stress or mental distress at any stage.

The workplace could also undertake projects that are preventative: rather than waiting until somebody experiences a mental health crisis, preventing it from happening by running healthy eating groups, stress management classes and meditation or mindfulness groups can be an affordable – and effective – way to keep your staff’s wellbeing at the front and centre of your priorities.

Creating a positive business model

While there is a great deal more to employee wellbeing than squeezing the maximum amount of productivity from each and every member of staff, both parties are in some way or another, goal orientated. On the one hand employers are seeking to make the best possible gains from the workforce while the employees are seeking to make the best return in exchange for the time and effort they apply to their jobs.

In an ideal world of positively managed employee wellbeing, both goals are achieved through positive engagement and a vision that encompasses the needs of both parties. Such a business model doesn’t put the employer and employee at odds; rather, it focuses them on achieving a mutually beneficial goal. This type of employee engagement adds value at many levels by making the workforce feel heard, well-led, and above all valued in the overall scheme of things, in fact, much less of a business “commodity” and much more of a valued “asset”.

The financial benefits

Notwithstanding the financial costs that are likely to come hot on the heels of any reported non-compliance issues relating to mental health in the workplace, there are many other sometimes less obvious expenses. According to the Office for National Statistics, a staggering 137.3 million working days were estimated to have been lost through sickness in 2016 alone! While many “minor” ailments are able to claim responsibility for almost thirty percent of those, mental health issues alone accounted for 15.8 million lost working days in the same year.

Employers who choose to initiate improved workplace protocols to address and work towards resolving mental health among its employees are the ones most likely to reap the benefits. From a happier and more productive workforce to a decrease in lost hours through absence due to ill health, they are more likely to further benefit from a healthier figure on their all-important bottom line.

Retaining and developing a value-added workforce

Staff retention is both an issue and a headache for small- and medium-sized businesses, where every bottom on every seat often makes a specific and necessary contribution towards the success of the operation. With twice as many people who suffer long-term mental health issues leaving their jobs as those who have no such issues, the benefits to supportive employers who provide support and set up appropriate schemes for employees are obvious.

Making it all work

It would be naïve to suggest that, by instigating a few key changes in how businesses deal with employee health and mental health issues, they were able to provide an overnight panacea for all ills. Whilst there are certain to be many immediate gains, it is far more likely that a business that integrates an ethos of managing such issues will continue to benefit in the medium and long term too.

The bottom line is that no business can afford to ignore the implications or the benefits of extending understanding, tolerance, and practical assistance to any of their employees who may suffer from health issues of any kind. Not only is it poor business practice, it is unethical to take advantage of workers who are unwell. By setting up positive provision that can genuinely help your employees to stay well, you will be taking responsibility for workers who may otherwise be vulnerable.