In light of Mental Health Awareness Week, RSPH's Gina Mohajer looks at the importance of workplace awareness and support for mental health problems.

The equation seems simple; a healthy workforce equates to a happy workforce which results in a more productive and successful organisation. This is good for society and the country’s economy. However in reality the picture is bleak, suggesting that this formulae is neither being understood nor utilised.

Unfortunately, poor mental health is not uncommon in today’s society. In Britain, one in four adults will experience a diagnosable mental health problem in any one year, despite the UK being one of the richest countries in the developed world.

Whilst wealth does not necessarily lead to happiness, having a good standard of living, access to free healthcare, can certainly improve a society’s wellbeing. However, not so surprisingly, 80 percent of people with a mental health problem believe that their condition is associated to work related problems.

Does this imply that employers do not understand the equation mentioned above? Or are they so intent on achieving their outcomes that they choose to ignore it, not realising that the long term affects of poor mental health can be catastrophic for society.

With one in six working Britons experiencing a mental health issue at any one time, including depression, anxiety or stress - more needs to be done to address these unsettling statistics.

In the run up to Mental Health Awareness Week (12–18 May) two significant, and timely, documents have been published; a survey by Depression Alliance revealing that a third of people struggle to cope at work due to stress/exhaustion, and a report entitled “Depression in the Workplace in Europe: new insights from business leaders", which makes the argument that employers need to be more responsible for the wellbeing of their employees and the benefits this has on the country’s economy and society as a whole.

At any one time in Britain one worker in six will be experiencing depression, anxiety or problems relating to stress. Among people who describe their mental health as poor, 80% say this is at least in part a result of problems at work

The report, which was published at the end of April, suggests that mental health problems are the leading cause of disability worldwide, affecting 350 million people. More over, depression disproportionally affects adults of working ages and the financial impact on business and the economy is profound.

Recent figures, from the London Schools of Economics and Political Science and King’s College London, shows that the annual cost of depression to European businesses is a staggering £77 billion. This is directly a result of lost productivity.

Presenteeism, as identified in the report, can be as detrimental to the organisation and the individual, as much as absenteeism, if not more. In the UK, it is believed that 1.5 times as much work is lost through presenteeism as absenteeism for mental health conditions.

This can be attributed to two reasons; firstly, employees with depression also experience cognitive symptoms (difficulty concentrating, indecisiveness and forgetfulness) up to 94% of the time, hindering their performance in the workplace. Secondly, employees are reluctant to take time off work, even when they need to, due to fear of losing their job or demotion, which could compromise their finances. This therefore fuels their stress and can augment and prolong existing mental health conditions.

Having a mental health problem can impact all aspects of our every day life including our relationships with family, friends and colleagues. The Depression Alliance survey which involved 1,200 people, found that 83 percent affected by a mental health problem at work also experienced isolation or loneliness, however only half of those feeling depressed or lonely confided in a colleague, yet a large proportion who did, reported to have felt better.

Mental health problems can affect any of us, but in spite of this, there is a widespread lack of awareness, especially in the workplace, of how to recognise the signs and support people. Colleagues and managers may not know how, or feel confident, in supporting someone with a mental health condition, and moreover may not be aware what, if any, the companies policy is on mental health.

The report stated that the majority of workplaces (78% in the UK), do not have a formal mental health policy in place and would most likely benefit from reviewing how they deal with depression. Not surprisingly, many employees are reluctant to inform their managers if they know that they have a problem due to fear of facing prejudice or stigmatisation. This of course can escalate feelings of isolation.

Chief Executive of Depression Alliance, Emer O'Neill says, "Depression is the biggest mental health challenge among working-age people and often leads to considerable loneliness and isolation at work. However, many companies aren't properly equipped to manage employees who suffer from depression so providing support to these individuals in the workplace is essential”.

Who’s responsibility is it anyway?

We are all susceptible to experiencing a mental health problem. Research suggests around 50 percent of our mental health can be attributed to our genetics and environment, but the remaining can be altered by our activities and steps we take in life to protect our mental health.

With such a high percentage of mental health problems related to work, more needs to done to protect the mental health and wellbeing of employees. Employers should aim to create a supportive environment that reduces the taboo around mental health, but also implement strategic health and wellbeing plans with the sole intention of protecting their workforce and providing managers and colleagues with the knowledge and tools to deal with mental health appropriately and effectively.

RSPH is a strong advocate of improving the health and mental wellbeing of the population, through the creation of health champions and workplace health and wellbeing champions. Our new national Level 2 Award in Mental Wellbeing qualification, seeks to equip people with practical skills they can incorporate in their every day lives to improve and protect mental health. When people have good mental health, they can lead more fulfilling lives, can solve problems and are more productive.

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