Why mental health care must become a business priority

It’s difficult to think of any single issue which could be allowed to undermine every worker’s worth to their employer by £1,500 each year without prompting urgent action – yet this is the impact of mental ill-health on UK businesses

This is an edited version of an article first published by the Business Leader

New data shows absenteeism, presenteeism and staff turnover are costing employers £33-43bn a year, a sum which amounts to between £1,205 and £1,560 per worker.

Stress, depression, anxiety and burnout all contribute to these staggering numbers yet, typically, go unaddressed, with few companies offering support for those affected, and fewer still offering preventative help to halt problems before they take root.

This could, however, be about to change.

Mental health has made headlines on an unprecedented scale in recent years, perhaps due to celebrities campaigning or speaking out about their own experiences. This has helped break down taboos and encouraged others to seek help – Google trends reveals ‘mental health support’ has shown fourfold growth as a UK search term over the past five years – yet, despite this, mental health as a workplace issue commonly remains overlooked.

“I think the stigma is an enormously important aspect,” says Ry Morgan, co-founder of workplace mental health platform Unmind. “All the stats suggest that nine-in-10 employees wouldn’t feel comfortable speaking to their employer about a mental health condition; that speaks enormously to the stigma. If they don’t feel they are in a culture where they can broach it, they’re just going to sweep it under the rug and fail to pro-actively seek help.

“Then things get worse, and then, when they do finally get to breaking point, it’s far harder to tackle because so many issues become much more deeply ingrained.”

A dark rabbit hole

Ry knows the subject well. He grew up with a parent who suffered from clinical depression, and his own career has twice been interrupted by the same condition. During one ‘really dark’ time he was rated a suicide risk, and knows his professional life was a big contributing factor.

“Workplace pressure can absolutely contribute to someone’s overall mental health,” he says. “It’s a huge factor. Start-up folk and ambitious people can be guilty of being their own biggest critics, feeling you’re not doing well enough, and that can create a negative cycle that drives you into a bit of a dark rabbit hole.”

Since those difficult days Ry has teamed up with two other experts to launch Unmind, a platform delivering preventative mental health care in the workplace. Clinical psychologist Dr Nick Taylor, and wellbeing coach Steve Peralta, joined him in creating Unmind in 2016; the platform has since grown to win clients like John Lewis, British Airways, Just Eat and William Hill. Its services enable employees to confidentially track, measure and understand their mental health through practical exercises, while also allowing employers to understand trends, support their teams and mitigate stressors.

The ambition, Ry says, is to help ‘build happier and healthier workforces’ worldwide – and it is well on the way, with recent funding of £3m helping to grow a London-based brand now operating in 30 countries and supporting more than 250,000 people.

“Within the workplace there’s been little focus on preventative initiatives to help individuals who aren’t really dealing with a clinical condition but just want to bolster their everyday health and be more focused and productive,” Ry explains.

“The best intervention is early intervention. If you break your leg, you want to get to the doctor as soon as possible, not wait three months to get it fixed, but the equivalent when it comes to mental health isn’t nearly as clear. People don’t know where to turn.”

Companies must work harder 

Dr Mitesh Patel, medical director at global health benefits provider Aetna International, agrees that companies must take a more proactive stance on mental health to protect their reputation as caring and progressive employers.

“As we enter a new decade, the expectations surrounding physical and mental health provision at work will undoubtedly increase,” Dr Patel said. “This means businesses will need to work harder to understand, and reflect, the needs and priorities of their workforces, implementing health and well-being support and workplace policies that are relevant to contemporary working culture.

“Companies need to treat mental health care as a priority if they want to remain competitive. They can start by encouraging openness and acceptance to overcome mental health stigma in the workplace.”

More employers now recognise mental health issues as the biggest cause of workplace absenteeism – and awareness is growing, Ry believes. However, a key step towards Unmind’s goal of making mental health ‘universally understood, nurtured and celebrated’ will be ensuring that people devote time to the issue – which will mean undoing a lifetime of past learning.

“If we think of something like dental health, we are all brought up as kids to focus six minutes a day working on our teeth to avoid trips to the dentist – but, when it comes to our brains, we don’t do that,” Ry says.

“Our teeth are one of the most basic parts of our physiological makeup, yet we spend daily time working on them; our brains are one of the most complex things in the known universe, so it’s bananas that we educate and create a cultural narrative on the importance of preventative dental care, and yet not on mental care.

“Mental health is the coolest thing about being a human being; it’s literally what differentiates us as a species from everything else on the planet. So how has it ended up as a less sexy subject than a toothbrush? That seems really backwards.

“Our mission is to help people live happier, healthier, more human lives.”

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