THE BLOG

Mental Health at Work: Show Leadership and Start Talking

25/03/2014 12:25 GMT | Updated 24/05/2014 10:59 BST

My fiancée can always see it coming - the moment I tell her I feel invincible, she knows that soon enough I'll have a period where I feel unable to get out of bed. For a long time I thought I had something physically wrong with me; I had test after test, but nothing was found. It's only been in the last 12 months that I have admitted I suffer from depression. Facing this reality and dealing with it has not only improved my personal life, but I've also enjoyed more success in the business since being open and accepting myself. I would like to see other people, and other businesses, do the same.

The 6th of February was Time To Talk Day, a campaign encouraging people to start conversations about mental health. It has inspired me to not only share my experience but think about the role employers must play in dealing with this growing issue, which affects a quarter of people in the UK every year, costing companies £30bn and the economy as a whole £70bn.

Despite the prevalence and potential cost of mental ill health, businesses are often unprepared to deal with the problem, particularly SMEs. A comprehensive survey by The Shaw Trust (PDF) found that 72% of companies don't have a mental health policy, with small businesses half as likely as large organisations to have one.

Employees know about this problem - the CIPD found in 2012 that less than half of employees felt comfortable talking to their employer about mental health, and only 25% said their employer actively encouraged openness about it. It's not difficult to see how multi-billion sums of money are lost.

Patrick Watt from Bupa recently argued that SMEs should take the initiative on confronting mental health issues in the workplace, with business owners leading by example. I agree with him.

Employers must demonstrate real leadership in this area - not only because it's the right thing to do for people, but because it makes sound business sense.

I recognise that it can be difficult for small businesses, especially where there is no dedicated HR manager. However, based on my personal experience, I know there are ways to tackle the issue and increase the wellbeing of employees:

1. Accept responsibility as an employer: In my experience, a support structure of understanding people is vital for coping with mental ill health. Friends and family can be an invaluable part of this - they were for me - but so are employers, so recognise and accept that you have an important role in supporting your staff.

2. Start the discussion: Talking about depression with my co-directors for the first time was daunting; however, they were brilliant, making that conversation a real turning point in my recovery. Employers need to show courage and start conversations about mental health, bringing the issue into the open and creating an accepting environment.

3. Look out for the signs: When people are in the grip of mental ill health they often can't see the wood for the trees - but employers are in a position to help staff recognise potential problems. Mind's detailed guidelines (PDF) contain a wealth of practical tips including how to look out for mental illness among your employees. As a starting point, conduct an anonymous survey measuring stress levels and other warning signs, making it a regular thing so that mental health is always on your radar.

4. Take action: Following through is crucial - employees need to know that you will take real steps to help them manage their condition and stay in work. For me, when the black dog bites, I need to take time out without feeling like I'm letting people down. If I have the space to do this, I'll be out of action for only a day or two rather than a week or more, and I'll come back all the more motivated.

If you're not sure what to do, Mind's guidelines (PDF) explain how to make reasonable adjustments in the workplace, and I've written before about how to be flexible and support employees. The brilliant Mindful Employer initiative also provides support to businesses whose staff are experiencing mental health problems.

5. Enjoy the shared success: When I tackled my mental health problem head-on, my life started to improve but crucially so did my performance at work. Suffering from depression does not make me a less effective person overall, and I feel a huge commitment to those people who have given me the understanding I need.

If I show this same understanding towards my staff, they will feel accepted and won't want to work anywhere else. Even though an employer can save money by managing mental health issues at work, it's about so much more than that - it's about staff commitment, and getting the very best out of employees by supporting them.

There must be many more people who have suffered mental ill health as I have, and yet still work and succeed. I want to take this opportunity to encourage business owners and employees to speak up and share your experiences, as the more of us there are having the conversation, the louder it will be.