Confronting the Elephant in the Boardroom

15/10/2013 11:39 BST | Updated 14/12/2013 10:12 GMT

Do you remember the last time that someone in your office talked openly about mental health issues? Have you ever heard a colleague discussing anxiety or depression in the work environment? In 2013, mental health continues to be a business taboo - the elephant in the boardroom.

But it's an issue that has to be addressed for long-term business success. Last year, 10.4million working days in the UK were lost as a result of stress, depression and anxiety - with work pressure and a lack of support from managers listed among the causes leading to absence.

It can be difficult for leaders to know where to begin when it comes to addressing mental health in the workplace. What steps should they take to create an open culture and lead a happy workforce? It might seem obvious, but small things like interaction, work-life balance and effective feedback can be a huge influence on employee happiness.

Being 'all ears'

It's vital that leaders are alert to changes in employees' behaviours. Managers must be provided with practical support and guidance to ensure that they know how to spot signs such as distress, frustration or a withdrawal from office life, as well as how to react to issues and get the right help for those they manage.

If one or more of these signs trigger concern, or have lasted more than one working week, there may be a need to reach out to see if there are difficulties for the individual. This can be as simple as the manager saying to the employee: "Is there anything I can do to help? It seems like you may need more support from me now."

Managers can suggest that employees who raise concerns take time to see their GP or occupational health contact. If the employee expresses concern about taking time off work however, it is more important for them to get some help immediately, rather than waiting until the situation worsens.

Senior management needs to take practical action, but initiatives that create the right culture can also help. What might these look like? Awareness seminars, regular catch-ups between line managers and employees and drop-in sessions with mental health professionals could all play a part.

Keeping the herd happy

Managers should encourage interaction and face-to-face engagement between colleagues. It's becoming all-too-easy to send a colleague an email instead of walking to the end of the office to talk. But discussion and creating an open workplace community is essential to creating an environment in which people feel able to be themselves and comfortable enough to share.

Creating a team that talks doesn't happen by accident and managers will need to think about how working practices and environments impact on the dynamics between staff. Someone who doesn't speak all day is equally unlikely to share a problem.

Packing your trunk

As the working day gets longer and workloads increase, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain a work-life balance that ensures ample relaxation and rejuvenation.

Employees tend to stay late, take shorter lunch breaks and use fewer holiday days, meaning they have less time to clear heads and refresh. One way to ensure employees get some headspace is to make it a requirement that an hour of work time a week be spent exercising, speaking with a counsellor, or getting peer support within the organisation.

A lot of managers will also need to look at their own working practices and the example they're setting. Of course, leaders will feel the pressures that working life brings, but stress levels can be 'contagious' so it's important to take a step back during busy periods and seek out help if necessary.

An elephant never forgets

Employees fear that showing vulnerability at work can lead to being overlooked for promotion or pay rises, and two-thirds of people with a recognised mental health issue haven't disclosed their condition to an employer or potential employer due to fear of stigma.

It is vital that employees who have raised their mental health issues at work do not feel they've been left in a quagmire about their future within the company, as this breeds demotivation and discontent. Effective feedback systems should be a focus for all organisations so that members of staff know what they are doing well, where they need to improve and how they can progress.

How to address the elephant

For a workforce to be healthy, happy and productive, employees must feel that in being open about their struggles they will be supported by leaders.

It's imperative to set a good example and leaders must be the ones that front this change for it to be effective, regularly communicating that they understand the pressures that employees face. Only then will the entire workforce, from top to bottom, feel more comfortable asking for help. We need to stop ignoring the elephant in the room and start talking about it.

Bupa's Healthy Minds service for businesses gives employees fast, direct access to effective mental health support, providing early intervention on the phone, online or in person, with no need for a GP referral.