31/10/2018 14:47 GMT | Updated 31/10/2018 14:47 GMT

It's Time Employers Took Formal Action To Improve Mental Health In The Workplace

Government initiatives to raise awareness of mental health issues will only go so far. We need to think about mandatory mental health audits

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Every employer with more than 100 staff should be required to carry out a regular ‘mental health audit’ if we are really going to take this growing problem seriously.

Radical? Certainly. But Government initiatives to raise awareness of mental health issues, and profile raising support from royalty, whilst obviously welcome, will only go so far. There needs to be formal action.

Alarming research suggesting that up to 15 per cent of the UK workforce has a mental health condition, and up to 300,000 people a year are losing their jobs as a result, cannot be taken lightly. Compassion and warm words are just not enough when businesses have plenty of other distracting priorities.

An audit would allow employees to speak openly and anonymously, and it would look at internal practices and management, taking particular note of complaints and absenteeism to reach conclusions.

But the detail is for later. We might first start by being more generous about how poor ‘mental health’ is defined. Many people first experience extreme stress, the sort that comes from unreasonable demands at work, bullying behaviour or unreasonable expectations. This then manifests itself in erratic behaviour, attitudes and absences. It is a short step from what starts as an impossible, unrelieved strain to full-blown depression; and eventually to total collapse and often loss of work.

If extreme stress was taken seriously, including with a recognition that it is not a one-size-fits-all condition requiring formal diagnosis, then we might start to save people from sliding into ‘mental illness’, a clearer diagnosis that is not only debilitating and destructive, but one with collateral impact on families, colleagues and the health service.

We are all more than just the sum of our jobs, or should be; and it is time that employers looked hard at their role, particularly in the working culture they create, not to mention the working practices they allow. There are important questions to ask: Are they tipping people into an abyss of depression, illness and, ultimately, failing productivity? An audit would answer these questions.

My experience as a counsellor with the Samaritans suggests that many people tip into illness when they are required to support actions at work which they think are wrong or unethical and have nowhere to turn. They can also be overcome by fear at seeing how colleagues are treated, or become isolated by group-think to which they are opposed.

Decline into mental illness can be very fast. But there are steps individuals can take to protect themselves from the early difficulties. The first one is to think of themselves, which means carving out time to exercise, eat healthily, avoid excessive alcohol and switch off. Self-esteem, after all, starts with the word ‘self’.

A requirement for all large firms to assess the health of staff would send a clear signal to other, smaller enterprises that they should follow. It would set a formal standard for compassion and understanding that would reverberate through society; and it would signal formal recognition that mental health is a genuine priority. The process would also produce better practices, helping employers and policy makers to understand how the pressures of modern working are exacting a mental toll.

There is also a positive benefit from better mental health to encourage the process: profitability. Anything that reduces the number of sick days taken and also increases the motivation to work effectively must be good for the economy as a whole. Mental health should be a right, not a condition.