24/04/2015 13:42 BST | Updated 24/06/2015 06:59 BST

Time to Rethink the Role of Mental Health in Business

The mental health problems of employees come under the spotlight when there are incidents, most often bad ones. Most recently, we've seen the devastating effects of an individual with mental health issues in the Germanwings air crash. And we've seen high profile cases of executives who have committed suicide, blaming workplace stress.

In addition to the loss of human life, mental health issues cost the UK economy £70bn or 4.5% of GDP according to the OECD. This comes in the form of productivity losses, disability payments and the cost to the NHS. Globally the cost over the next twenty years is estimated to be $16trillion. Within this category, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, with more than 350million people suffering globally. Other conditions include anxiety and (bad) stress.

People are working longer hours, often in more stressful situations. This demands far more mental and physical resilience. Yet the topic of mental health still carries a stigma in many organisations. Individuals don't disclose their condition for fear of reprisal, and the assumptions colleagues might make. According to research by Friends Life, four in 10 UK employees have experienced stress, anxiety or depression and not told their employer. And over 50% of all workers believe being open about a common mental health problem would damage their career prospects. Recent research seems to confirm this concern: according to Axa PPP seven in ten bosses don't think that mental illness deserves time off work.

At an event hosted by my own employer, PwC, called 'Disclose or not to disclose', one individual talked about "living in the shadows" and "suffering in silence". These are emotive words that strike to the heart of feelings of separation from others and loneliness when mentally ill.

This situation is quite the opposite of what we might expect if we look at the fundamentals of business. Any business - especially in the service sector - tries to tap in to the full potential of the brains of their employees in order to maximise productivity, employee engagement and overall shareholder value. Physical capability is often not as important, although clearly there are positive links between physical exercise and mental health. You might therefore expect that businesses would do everything to nurture, protect and treat the mental health of their employees. Sadly it's not true. It seems in contrast to how some elite sportspeople are supported: they are encouraged to talk openly about their mental state, their hopes, fears and anxieties as part of a package of what I would call 'whole self' support.

There is some movement in the right direction. The topic was raised at the Davos Summit this year, giving it a global platform in the business world. And more and more employers offer guidance and practical assistance to their employees, whilst launching awareness campaigns and support networks. Charities, like Mind, are working with employers to offer expert guidance.

In my own case, I suffered from what was called 'mild anxiety' ten years ago after a number of life events all came together, including the break-up of a long-term relationship. I was lucky enough to receive counselling, and incredible support from my family. My parents came to stay with me, helping me get through the beginnings and ends of the day when things seemed tougher; my sister shared some practical tips. I learnt to retrain and reframe my thoughts to be more constructive and positive, using principles from cognitive behavioural therapy. I hid how I felt from virtually everyone for fear of the assumptions people they might make both personally and professionally. And, no, my performance at work didn't suffer. I'd say my mental health is stronger from the new techniques I've learnt and experience I've gained. I am certainly more aware of others who might be suffering.

My sense is that there are plenty of people who have suffered, or are suffering, from some form of mental health challenge at work. Leaders in business need to create the conditions in which they feel comfortable disclosing whatever they need to in order to seek the support they need. I wish I had. Of course, how much to disclose and in what way is entirely a personal choice.

I think there are six things that business leaders can do to promote mental health in the workplace:

  1. Talk openly about a culture they want to see in which their people are mentally healthy. And reassure their people who are ill that they will receive support, without any assumptions about how this might affect their prospects for the future.
  2. Publish a values statement that sets out these points explicitly.
  3. Appoint senior individuals in to roles of with specific responsibility for the Mental Health of their employees.
  4. Put in place induction programmes for new recruits and development programmes for existing staff that teach people how to stay healthy, mentally (as well as physically).
  5. Encourage explicit conversations on projects or initiatives in which people are encouraged to share how they feel in their 'whole self'.
  6. Give training to people who are likely to be the ones who people might reach out to for support; this could be their buddies, mentors or coaches. It's often the first few interactions that really make a difference when somebody is suffering.

Above all else, they need to create a culture in which it is easier to live a life where our mental and physical health can thrive. This means creating an environment in which we focus on our strengths, support each other and celebrate successes. It starts with a clear message from the top in business that mental health is a critical aspect of business performance, not an issue to be managed or hidden away.