Work expert Acas has launched its first guide to tackle the last business taboo – mental illness at work.
The problem is fast growing, particularly as workers are increasingly concerned about the economic downturn.
It costs employers in the West an estimated £550m a year in lost production and replacing staff who leave due to mental ill-health. Across Britain the cost is £30bn.
Mental health experts say that at one worker in six will be experiencing depression, anxiety or stress problems at any one time – equivalent to around 88,500 of the 531,000 workers in the West – Bristol, North Somerset, South Gloucestershire and Bath and North East Somerset.
But by improving their management of mental health at work, employers in the area could be able to cut the cost by about a third.
Acas has produced the new guide with Devon Partnership NHS Trust agency Workways, which specialises in advising on dealing with mental ill-health in the workplace through its Mindful Employer initiative.
Acas’ Bristol-based regional director Tony Cooper, who played an influential part in initiating the new guide, said: “The stumbling block at the moment is that many employers and managers shy away from dealing with mental illness at work because it can be hard to pin down and it is a very sensitive matter to deal with. People often won’t talk about mental illness because they think it is something disturbing that it is easier to avoid.
“We all need to develop a new way of looking at mental health and break down the taboo. There needs to be a willingness to discuss mental health and a culture where employers understand it and try to help their employees recover from mental illness.
“Our mental well-being is as much a part of health as our physical health. And we need to take into consideration that one in four of the population will suffer a mental health problem at some point in their lives.”
Acas is offering training in Bristol on May 2 for employers and managers with a step-by-step guide which shows them how to:
- Spot early the signs of mental ill-health;
- Raise awareness of mental health issues among managers and staff;
- Develop a culture where an employee feels comfortable disclosing their condition;
- Approach an employee who may have a mental health condition;
- Try to help employees cope with it or overcome it so they can work effectively again.
The guide also explains how to be aware of patterns of behaviour, build a rapport with an employee, talk to them in a range of scenarios, and what practical steps can be taken.
Mr Cooper added: “Managers are not expected to become professional counsellors. They should start by handling mental ill-health in the same way they would a physical illness by focusing on good communication, becoming aware of the issues and empathising.”
The key for managers is to identify factors they can control and those they cannot.
“Managers can control workloads, work variety and relationships, communication and bullying, and strategies for the employee to cope at work, and they may be able to have some influence over financial rewards, status, sense of purpose and levels of stress.
“But there can be circumstances outside an employer’s control, such as childhood experiences, family relationships, addiction problems and bereavement. However, an employer, by creating a supportive environment at work, where people feel able to disclose their problems, can help them address their issues and remain productive at work.
“Also, there may be times when an employer will need to refer an employee to outside, specialist sources for help and advice.”
Charity the Centre for Mental Health says that nationally a total of 91m work days are lost to mental ill-health every year. But the lost days account for only about half the £30billion cost of reduced productivity nationally, with most of the rest taken up by employees turning up for work when unwell and not performing at their best.