Welcome to part two of our Workplace Wellbeing Series. Today, we’ll be covering mental health in the workplace, and why it’s one of the key issues of our time. We’ll also be breaking down the effects that poor workplace mental health can have on a range of behaviors, including employee engagement and productivity.

How common is poor mental wellbeing at work?

Mental health costs UK businesses £45 billion a year, as shown by Deloitte’s research. One in six employees will experience poor mental health at any one time. On top of that, Deloitte found that stress is responsible for half of working days lost. But the true cost of poor mental health isn’t financial.

In 2019, there were 5,691 registered suicides in the UK. That equates to eleven deaths for every 100,000 people in the population that year.

The prolonged effects of depression include memory loss and difficulty thinking clearly. The stress of long-term depression can also damage physical health with symptoms. These can include things like stomach ulcers and a weakened immune system.

The 2019 CIPD Health and Well-being at Work” survey found that mental health is becoming an increasingly significant cause of both short and long-term sickness absence. Three fifths of respondents report an increase of common mental health issues (e.g. depression or anxiety) in employees over the last twelve months.

To make matters worse, less than a tenth of businesses have a standalone mental health policy.

However, most businesses are taking some action to address employee mental health. A third of companies have incorporated mental wellbeing into other policies. On top of that, one in five are in the process of developing a formal policy around mental health specifically.

Amid rising stress levels, management training remains a problem

At the moment, less than half of organisations provide mental health training for managers. And this has improved slightly from the previous year. However, respondents are still more likely to disagree that their manager has the skills to support employee mental health.

We should not underestimate the role played by stress, either. Almost two fifths of respondents reported an increase in stress-related absence since last year. In fact, only 8% of businesses actually reported a decrease. The most common reason has often been heavy workload. The same is true for the 2019 survey, with the addition that an increasing number of respondents are blaming poor management styles.

How can businesses improve employee mental health?

The legal sector is arguably one of the most demanding in the UK. Lawcare is a support organisation for legal professionals that runs an advice hotline. In 2019, the number of people using their service was up 8% compared to the previous year.  According to Lawcare, the most frequently cited reason was stress (26%) followed by depression (12%).

In response, Karen Baxter, a partner and board member at Lewis Silkin, spearheaded an initiative to improve her firm’s mental health policies. They realized that lawyers with between five and fifteen years of experience had the highest level of poor wellbeing. It was also more difficult to get senior partners or lawyers to attend counselling.

As a result, Karen personally led the firm’s “ThisPlaceMinds” campaign over the course of a week. ‘It had a principal objective of ensuring we have a culture where anyone can share their mental health concerns, safely in the knowledge that they will be met with support and understanding,’ she said.

What we can learn from Karen’s initiatives

Karen also instituted the Guardians programme. A “Guardian” is a voluntary member of staff who, once properly trained, provides support and a confidential ear to any employee who wants to raise an issue but isn’t sure how.

When discussing the importance of mental health at work, Karen had this to say:

‘In the legal profession, we sell our minds. If a law firm does not look after the minds of its partners and staff, it is like owning a book shop and leaving the books out in the rain.’

‘The human cost to the affected individuals is clear. But there are further emotional and financial costs, including increased pressure on colleagues and reduced efficiency and productivity. Accessing the right support or treatment at the right time can significantly improve the return to work experience for both the individual and their team.’

Honest communication and healthy boundaries are the only way forward

When asked what first steps could be taken to improve workplace mental health, Karen said, ‘Many of us are juggling family and work life, and so consider if you can offer flexible working or other solutions to ease this burden. Also, be aware of presenteeism, or the perception that you must work additional hours.’

But whether you’re part of a law firm or not, maintaining good mental wellbeing at work is vital. Mental health problems have rapidly become one of the defining issues of our time. But too many workplaces still hold onto a burnout culture that does not prioritize an employee’s mental wellbeing.

The first step in dealing with this is to provide staff with the means to communicate and raise issues confidentially. For starters, this gives employers to identify and tackle issues. But just as importantly, it gives employees a means to express their feelings could also directly benefit their mental health. Research also suggests that jornaling can be used as a form of stress relief by helping get maladaptive thoughts out of your head where they exist in a vacuum.