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Putting Mental Health at the Top of the Corporate Agenda

As part of the latest Autumn Statement, Chancellor George Osborne announced a £600m fund for mental health services over the next five years. Just last month, a number of high profile, public figures gave their backing to a scheme which calls for an increase in funding for mental health treatment in England, and when forming his first shadow cabinet in September, Jeremy Corbyn announced that for the first time ever in Britain, there would be a shadow ministerial post dedicated to mental health.

It's fantastic to see mental health increasingly moving up the political and public agenda. For too long these kinds of issues have been overshadowed by physical health problems which are often seen as easier to talk about and to treat. Meanwhile, mental illness has become a highly stigmatised, taboo issue- and nowhere more so than in the workplace. How many of us would feel comfortable talking about our own mental health with our colleagues, let alone our employer?

Yet it's a widespread issue: figures show that 1 in 4 of us will be diagnosed with a mental health problem at some point in our lives, contributing to an estimated 70 million working days to be lost each year. In fact, at Unum, mental health is one of our biggest sources of claims, accounting for 18% of all those made in the year up to July 2015.

And while the majority of employers would say their people are their most important asset, how many business leaders stop to think about the mental health of their workforce? With an increasingly always-on culture, people's work and personal lives are more and more blurred. Businesses need to take responsibility for their employees' mental wellbeing as much as they make efforts to protect their physical health. It can't just be an issue for HR departments; we need to break the taboo by creating an open and caring culture with the whole of the boardroom on side, taking a top down approach.

One way to get mental health on the board agenda is to look at the impact it has on the bottom line. Our recent research with the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) uncovered the cost of long term sickness absence - absences of 6 months or more - to UK businesses. It's a cost that businesses cannot ignore. Overall the findings showed that in 2014, the annual cost of long term sickness absence to UK businesses was £4.17 billion. And it's only going to grow. By 2030, it is set to reach £4.81 billion- a 15% increase.

28% of this cost was due to mental illness, which accounted for a staggering £1.88 billion. Importantly, our research looked into how these costs can be avoided, and how mental illness can be better identified and addressed through intervening early on. The research concluded that early intervention services like vocational rehabilitation - that often come as part of a Group Income Protection policy - provided at the first signs of illness, can have a huge impact on reducing the length of sickness absences, in turn limiting the associated costs. What's more, we found that in comparison with people suffering from physical health issues, those with poor mental health respond best to early intervention before their problem deteriorates into an illness.

The research also proved just how vital it is that employers take it upon themselves to ensure their staff make the most of the services available to them. This might be by training up line managers to make sure they can spot mental health issues before they become a more serious problem, through giving people access to cognitive behavioural therapy specialists, by making mental health first aid training a priority for all HR managers or even just by ensuring people have recourse to a mental health helpline so they always have someone to reach out to.

So while it's encouraging that we're talking about mental illness more openly which will mean that in future people may feel more able to seek help, in order to properly deal with these issues, like any illness, we have to understand where the problem comes from and how to deal with it in the very earliest stages. As much as increasing public awareness of mental illness is a vital part of the journey, as the old saying goes, 'Prevention is better than cure'. Good mental health should be a priority for any business, and implementing it needs to involve more than just the HR department - it needs to be led from the top down.

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