08/04/2014 09:30 BST | Updated 08/06/2014 06:59 BST

Businesses Are Ready to Listen, So Let's Talk About Mental Health

The overall cost of mental health to the UK economy is estimated at £70 billion per year. In 2013 alone, more than 15 million days of sickness absence across the UK were caused by everyday conditions such as stress, anxiety or depression - a dramatic increase from 11.8 million days in 2010.

The overall cost of mental health to the UK economy is estimated at £70 billion per year. In 2013 alone, more than 15 million days of sickness absence across the UK were caused by everyday conditions such as stress, anxiety or depression - a dramatic increase from 11.8 million days in 2010. And despite one in six employees currently experiencing mental health issues, many businesses are not putting in place plans to ensure the mental wellbeing of their employees.

These alarming statistics were some of the starting points for the new national campaign we have launched to end the culture of silence around mental health in the workplace, and ensure mental wellbeing is recognised as a priority boardroom issue. This affects everyone - the majority of people reading his article will either be in the position to promote better mental wellbeing at their workplace or will be able to petition for change through sharing this article with their managers.

Unless proactive, preventative steps are embedded into how businesses manage and nurture their people, issues that could otherwise be resolved simply can soon develop into ill-health, absence and disengagement. There is not only a moral case to address this, but also a fundamental business case.

Business in the Community (BITC) is a business-led charity committed to shaping a new contract between business and society. Through our Workwell strand, we formed the new BITC Workwell Mental Health Champions Group whose 12 founding members include BT, RBS and Procter & Gamble. During last week's Responsible Business Week, the group launched its inaugural 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 and competitiveness. It also outlines the benefits for businesses that proactively engage with mental wellbeing: improved employee motivation, greater staff retention and increased competitiveness.

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. We are also looking for progressive businesses to join BITC Workwell's Mental Health Champions Group and help affect a step change in the culture of UK businesses.

At our launch event, more than 150 individual organisations were represented, reflecting that even if many businesses are not openly talking about mental health yet, they are certainly looking for leadership to see how to open up the dialogue.

Patrick Watt, Corporate Director at Bupa chairs the new champions group. He pointed out this has long gone past the point of it being simply an HR issue. Only by more senior business leaders talking openly about their own experiences or their own plans can the situation be improved and other business leaders be inspired to take action.

Deloitte is one example of where progressive businesses see the value of engaging with this issue. David Sproul, Senior Partner and Chief Executive of Deloitte UK, said he knew that if they addressed mental health proactively then it would bring tangible benefits to business performance as well as simply being the right thing to do. "We want our people to be healthy, happy and engaged so they can thrive in their work," he said. Deloitte has implemented its own 'champions network' to ensure anyone can raise concerns without fear of stigma.

Paul Farmer, CEO of mental health charity Mind, reflected on the fact we all know people who experience mental health concerns so questioned why so much stigma still exists. He told the audience, "A stronger business voice on mental health is mission critical for UK plc."

A powerful personal testimonial came from Pete Rodgers, Deputy General Counsel, KPMG International and chair of the City Mental Health Alliance. In his mid 30s he experienced severe depression and had to take a leave of absence from work. He was assisted back into work and has obviously become very successful. He not only challenges the stereotype of who can experience mental ill health but also spoke about how his problems may have been avoided if he and others around him were better trained to read the signs of concern and take the appropriate steps to deal with them.

There was then a panel debate that included Jayne Carrington, Managing Director of Right Management; John Binns, Director at fit4success, ex Senior Partner at Deloitte; Professor Cary Cooper, Distinguished Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health, Lancaster University and Suzanne Hughes, Learning and Development Director, Santander UK.

Cary Cooper put it plainly: "The cost of ignoring this is astronomical." Suzanne Hughes said that Santander last year ran a wellbeing survey which identified the issues and barriers to better mental health at work - they are now rolling out a number of practical programmes that others may draw inspiration from. All panellists poke of the importance of aligning health and wellbeing strategy to business and performance strategies. The debate was chaired by BITC Board member John Williams who concluded that "we all have mental health, so let's have good mental health."

The event also shared video case studies from Mars, Deloitte and Friends Life about the practices they are putting in place to proactively promote better mental wellbeing. One of the most notable observations from the event was the number of partners who have come together to make this possible - the report itself was developed in association with Mind, and with the assistance of Cary Cooper, the Work Foundation and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

Mental health is one of the biggest threats to the wellbeing of business and society. People are suffering in silence but it doesn't have to be this way and we'd like every UK business to join us in reshaping the approach to mental health. We're ready to talk - are you?

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