How UK companies are investing in ways to keep staff healthy and happy
One in four of us will experience a mental illness at some point in our lives, and the shocking statistics about workplace mental ill health are impossible to ignore. The number of people who experience anxiety, stress and depression at work has risen from a quarter to a third over the past five years (according to Chartered Institute of Personnel Directors survey), making mental illness the biggest cause of lost work days.
Highlighting the problem is clearly only the start, it’s what happens next that’s critical. On a national level Theresa May recently announced plans to launch an independent review into the Mental Health Act 1983, which will include examining the rising rates of mental illness at work.
It’s a welcome, if belated, step in the right direction. It’s the workplace itself which has the power to respond fastest and effect real change. Employers of businesses, large and small, are crucial to not only effectively managing episodes of mental health when they arise, but also to preventing them.
From allowing ‘duvet days’ to free fruit and lunchtime yoga sessions, UK employers are recognising the importance of wellbeing and investing in ways to keep staff happy, healthy and committed.
In business terms, it makes sense; researchers found that FTSE 100 businesses that used the words ‘mental health’ or ‘wellbeing’ more than twice in their annual reports last year raked in up to three times more profit than those that didn’t.
Yet, Britain lags behind America in recognising the importance of workplace mental wellbeing. In the States there is widespread acceptance of the value of talking through problems, and many organisations – especially those in Silicon Valley – have departments dedicated to ensuring staff feel supported.
Wellbeing is one of American software creator Salesforce’s fundamental team values. As well as standing and treadmill desks, Salesforce provides wellness zones in which employees can put away their devices and practice mindfulness. There’s also their ‘Press Pause’ speaker series, allowing staffto take a break and learn something new by listening to guest speakers, such as Zen masters.
According to a 2014 study by the UK’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, there is a direct correlation between employee wellness and job performance, not to mention staff being less likely to miss work. So while fewer than one in 10 (8 percent) of UK organisations currently have a standalone wellbeing strategy, that is starting to change.
Bernardo Moya, founder and CEO of The Best You, manages over 45 members of staff.“We all have days when we feel overwhelmed with the challenges of of life, or something can happen that can send us off track,” says Moya.
“I’ve strived to create an open environment where employees know they can come to me with any problem and I’ll listen non-judgementally. Feeling able to ask for help early is crucial to preventing someone reaching crisis point, and it’s my job to reassure people who may worry that admitting to a mental health issue will harm their career.”
The Best You is in the business of better understanding our minds and looking after them, so it follows that Moya has skills and resources to draw upon to help staff in need support. And while recognising that serious mental illness needs specialist care, Moya encourages staff who first experience a problem, such as anxiety, to try learning tools which can help them cope.
“We all have an internal dialogue, and that voice can either help us or be a negative force,” says Moya. “It can be very disruptive and limiting; you might say things to yourself you wouldn’t dream of saying to a friend, which can lead to anxiety.
“Understanding that this voice can be changed to a more positive, nurturing one is central to the work we do, and I encourage my staff to explore this. I might signpost them to an expert or put them on a course to learn the tricks to changing how they think. It really can help them overcome limiting beliefs and avoid them falling into a downward spiral.”
The challenge for British organisations is how to create similarly open environments where people experiencing mental illness feel able to ask for help. Organisations such as Acas tailor and deliver management training on this issue, while many companies now ensure there is a quota of staff trained in Mental Health First Aid, just as there would be for First Aid.
By 2030, there will be approximately two million more adults in the UK with mental health problems. There needs to be a quantum leap forward in the structured support offered in every kind of workplace – from boardrooms to back offices. “Mental illness can affect anyone, and managers of organisations can help staff to stay well,” says Moya. “Ultimately, we are the ones who choose whether or not to prioritise our health. We know what needs to be done – we need to do it”.