THE BLOG

Businesses Must Talk About Mental Health

13/05/2014 17:18 BST | Updated 13/07/2014 10:59 BST

Last year, more than 15million days of sickness absence across the UK were caused by everyday mental health conditions such as stress, anxiety or depression. And despite one in six employees (that's your colleagues, friends and family) currently experiencing mental health issues, many businesses are not putting in place plans to ensure the mental wellbeing of their workforce. The cost of all this? Not just a huge amount of personal suffering but a loss of approximately £70billion per year to the UK economy.

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, and it's one awareness week you want to pay attention to. Mental health is one of the biggest threats to the wellbeing of business and society. Employees across the UK are working harder and are under more pressure than ever before. Yet there remains a culture of silence - employers and employees are unwilling to talk about stress, anxiety and depression openly, fearful of the associations with weakness and failure.

This culture of silence - on an individual and organisational level - results in suffering, inequality and discrimination. By not taking simple steps to discuss mental wellbeing, issues that could otherwise be resolved simply can soon develop into ill health, absence and disengagement. Organisations that ignore the need for preventative action on mental health risk long-term problems, including reduced competitiveness, lower productivity and fewer prospects for sustainable growth. Conversely, the rewards for businesses that engage with this issue are huge.

We recently launched a campaign for Business in the Community (BITC) to address the 'culture of silence' over mental health in UK businesses, and ensure mental wellbeing is recognised as a priority boardroom issue. To shape the campaign, we produced a report, Mental Health: We're Ready to Talk, which sets out the evidence that the current culture of silence around mental health is stifling UK business productivity. It also outlines a route map for every business to harness the benefits of proactively engaging with mental wellbeing.

The campaign is being spearheaded by a new group of progressive business leaders who will drive the campaign ambition, report back on progress and work to inspire their peers. The new BITC Workwell Mental Health Champions Group has 12 founding members, including BT, RBS, Mars, Bupa, FriendsLife, Santander, Deloitte and Procter & Gamble. We worked closely with these businesses, as well as Mind, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the Work Foundation and Professor Cary Cooper to shape and steer the campaign.

Mental health is a continuum - it's not one state or the other - and it is in all our interests to try and ensure people can operate at the higher level of that continuum for as much as possible. As a first step, the campaign is calling on every UK business to demonstrate their commitment towards supporting the mental health of their employees by signing the Time to Change organisational pledge. You can find out more about the campaign here.

Many years ago, we at Forster Communications helped to launch the Government's Mind Out For Mental Health campaign, which aimed to tackle stereotypes and ensure better representation of mental health in the media and in all aspects of public life. We have come a long way since The Sun's now infamous 'Bonkers Bruno' headline but we can't afford to be complacent. Campaigns such as Time to Change, which aims to end mental health discrimination, demonstrate that there is still much work to be done in separating fact from fiction and preventing stigma. That campaign has produced a number of short videos of people speaking frankly about their mental health - the one that choked me up was of two rugby playing guys in their 30s. It reminded me of people I know. It's linked here and I encourage you to share it.

The theme of this year's Mental Health Awareness Week is anxiety - nearly one in five of us suffer from constant anxiety in everyday life and more than a fifth of people who suffer from anxiety say work issues are the source of the problem. And we recently had Depression Awareness Week - the Depression Alliance charity found that one in three people across the UK struggles to cope at work because of "depression, stress or burn-out". EU estimates suggest that nearly nine in every 10 cases of depression occur in someone of working age, with obvious economic costs. The starting point for businesses to counter all this needs to be positive - how can they help people thrive, feel good and enjoy their work - rather than a negative approach of simply reducing sickness absence.

ShortList magazine recently ran a feature on how to beat stress (before it beats you), using the hook of Moyes' public sacking at Manchester United. Whilst there have been a number of high profile sports stars outing themselves as suffering from stress, depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions, we have not had the same transparency from business. We need business leaders to take the stage and normalise the issue, and to ensure that those employees with a mental health problem know that help is at hand when they need it most.