Poor mental health at work has reached epidemic proportions. Companies must recognise the scale of the crisis before they can act on it.

Employee mental health is arguably one of the greatest challenges facing today’s managers. It covers a wide range of issues, including crippling anxiety, clinical depression, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Unfortunately, ignorance, denial and cluelessness are preventing business leaders from seeing, and acting upon, the unvarnished truth. Poor mental health is not a sporadic issue affecting a small minority of employees who just need to be treated ‘sensitively’ for public relations purposes. It is an epidemic affecting a large proportion of any company’s workforce, with corresponding damage to productivity.

Consider the following: UK doctors handed out 63.6 million prescriptions for anti-depressants between October 2015 and September 2016. Given that any single prescribed course is likely to last several months, this is a staggering statistic for a population of 64 million. Britain is not alone. One systematic review of EU countries, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland found that 27% of 18-65 year olds had experienced at least one mental disorder in the past year.

These alarming statistics are likely to be reflected in the office or factory. Extrapolating to the corporate world, a single large company might contain tens of thousands of mentally unwell employees in any given year. Business in the Community’s 2016 National Mental Wellbeing survey, found that 77% of UK employees have been affected by symptoms of poor mental health at some point during their lives. And 29% have actually been diagnosed with an often-recurring mental health condition. In other words, these people have felt sufficiently helpless to seek medical help. These are not mild cases of the blues.

Nor should we discount the indirect effects on close family that are excluded from these statistics. Living with a spouse or offspring suffering poor mental health will be a constant emotional and physical drain that is bound to reduce individual productivity.

Work shy

Given how misunderstood mental health issues are, few sufferers are likely to discuss the issue freely at work—and certainly not with the boss—especially if their livelihood depends on keeping a job. This has obvious repercussions.

Whether or not the workplace itself is a cause of mental health problems (and the above report suggests that it may be), it certainly suffers the consequences. England’s chief medical officer reports a 24% increase in sick days lost to ‘stress, depression and anxiety’ in the UK between 2009 and 2013. A 2016 survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in the UK found that sufferers who did turn up for work were affected by impaired concentration, a reduced ability to make decisions, and increased irritability with clients and colleagues.

Greater damage is caused when managers remain at work while depressed because of the knock-on effects on their direct reports

Still greater damage is caused when team leaders remain at work while depressed, because of the knock-on effects on their direct reports, suggests a London School of Economics study. It estimates that 1.2% of GDP is lost because depressed workers do not take time off.

Despite these overwhelming statistics, most companies are oblivious to the extent of the problem or don’t know how to respond. The UK’s Institute of Directors recently found that only one in six companies had a formal mental health policy in place, or offered mental health training for managers, and many of these policies will have underestimated the size of the problem.

Action for managers

What can companies do? To be sure, few managers are qualified to advise on appropriate action. Rather, this fraught and complex question requires detailed discussion with external mental health professionals. Companies might also think about appointing a Chief Mental Health Officer to oversee what has become a far-reaching strategic business concern. First and foremost, however, they must recognise the scale of the problem.

 

David Bolchover is an award-winning business journalist and author of three books on management and the workplace.

This article was written for FT|IE Corporate Learning Alliance.
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