COMMENT: Is it time to talk?

Most jobs have the potential to create tension, stress and anxiety. You don’t have to be a teacher or a surgeon to experience stress. Even in professions considered to be ‘low risk’, the risk of work-related stress is ever present: workload, organisational change and workforce dynamics are all contributing factors within most office environments. And outside the office, any number of issues may be affecting the ability of staff to carry out their roles to the best of their ability – physically and mentally.

Now, staff mental health – and the question around what employers could or should be doing about it – is a topic of increasing interest in risk and insurance circles, with a raft of studies carried out to examine the impact on people and businesses of stress, anxiety and depression.

It’s a sensitive topic, and one that not everyone feels comfortable discussing. In fact, a lot of people feel uncomfortable even talking to close friends and family about such issues. For these people, the prospect of talking about mental health in the workplace is likely to make them want to run for the hills.

Nevertheless. When it comes to understanding the issues and how they affect businesses, the picture varies enormously – with some studies pointing to quite ‘progressive’ attitudes, and others, well, the opposite.

One recent piece of research, carried out by Opinium and QBE, found that 40 per cent of senior decision makers had experienced a loss of business as a result of employees continuing to work while experiencing mental health problems.

Despite that, a quarter of those executives admitted to having no workplace mental health support. Further, 40 per cent said they would prefer employees experiencing mental health problems related to stress, anxiety or depression to continue working rather than taking time off.

That same study also found that 17 per cent of employers have failed to deliver products or services due to an employee continuing to work while experiencing mental health problems, and a good number of them said they had lost either customers or contracts as a result of a staff mental health-related issue of some kind.

Quite a vast majority (90 per cent) of those polled in the research think mental health problems are a valid reason to take sick leave, but at the same time, 70 per cent think an employee’s history of mental health problems would influence the level of responsibility or opportunities they were given – which is likely to be part of the reason most people aren’t too keen on the idea of sharing in the first place.

It therefore comes as little surprise that, when questioned, the majority of employees said they would feel pressure to come into work if they are experiencing a mental health problem.
It’s quite early days for the mental health at work discussion, and it will be interesting to see where companies go with it – particularly following concerns raised by IOSH and the University of Nottingham over what they considered to be “significant issues” and “potential safety concerns” over the provision of mental health first aid in workplaces, after a campaign was backed to make it mandatory.

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