In 2013, stress, depression and anxiety resulted in 15.2 million working days lost (ONS 2014) and non-work-related stressors cause more long-term sickness absence than any other health condition.
It is estimated that one in three people of traditional working age (16–65) experience anxiety and depression. According to the Centre for Mental Health, poor mental health costs employers an estimated £26bn each year.
In 2013 the UK department for health partnered with charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness to launch the campaign Time for Change, aimed at ending the stigma and discrimination faced by those suffering mental illness.
The Bank of England and the Financial Conduct Authority were among 100 institutions to sign a pledge supporting the campaign. Other backers included British Gas, Lloyds Banking Group and Ernst & Young. The then deputy prime minister Nick Clegg also supported the project.
Not only can lost working days cost businesses money, but board directors have responsibilities under the law to employees of the companies they represent.
These responsibilities apply in the same way as the responsibilities of the employer as a whole and to help the company ensure compliance with the requirements of legislation such as the Equality Act and a general duty of care.
Why should non-executives get involved? Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at Mind, says: “Getting across the message that staff wellbeing is a key business priority is much easier and more conducive to implementing positive change if senior leaders are on board.
“Workplaces which prioritise the wellbeing of their staff reap rewards in terms of increased staff morale, productivity and retention, as well as decreased sickness absence, so there’s a business case for prioritising wellbeing at work too.”
Rebecca Colley of Informed Financial Planning believes that non-executives have a strong role to play in making sure the companies they represent act responsibly when it comes to mental health issues. “A non-executive can offer a company an independent outlook on the issues of staff and mental health and assist the board in ensuring the strategy at a high level is in place,” she says.
Under the Equality Act (2010), employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to working practices to support anyone who discloses a mental health issue.
Adjustments should be made for people who face a disadvantage because of a disability, which includes mental illness.
For mental illness to be considered a disability, the impairment must have substantial adverse and long-term effects on a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.
Support measures and adjustments should be made on an individual-case basis and can be as simple as offering more one-to-one support when someone is struggling.
Flexible working hours, phased return, reduced hours and buddy systems are all potential solutions to a supportive workplace environment.
Employers also have a general duty of care to their employees under health and safety legislation. This includes assessing the risk of stress-related ill health arising from work activities and taking measures to control this risk.
Rebecca Colley says: “Procedures in staff handbooks/employment guides should refer to the company’s policy on such issues and ensure this is maintained and up to date with any legislative changes. However, policies and procedures are not sufficient on their own and the board should ensure through management and HR training that team leaders/supervisory staff are trained in the issues around mental health sufficiently.”
She adds: “Mental health conditions—today in 2015—are still widely stigmatised and misunderstood; people do not talk about the state of their mental health when such discussion has proven positive in helping those who are suffering. The aim should be to create an honest and open dialogue that will lead to a system of support and understanding between employer and employee.”