We need to close the mental health gap

Employers need to start proactively managing mental health in the same way they do other areas of wellbeing, argues Nick Taylor

Mental health has become a critical consideration in the development of employee wellbeing strategies, across the globe. Over the last few years, we’ve seen positive steps being taken to drive this agenda forward; from key business leaders speaking up about their own mental health to the Reward and Employee Benefits Association (REBA) announcing that mental health is now the number one wellbeing initiative being addressed by UK employers.

World Mental Health Day was a further proof-point in how far we’ve come, with news feeds that were peppered with information geared towards raising awareness of mental health in the workplace, and society at large. Couple this with our own research which found that UK workers now place greater importance on their mental health than their physical health – and it’s clear that we are starting to witness a significant change in workplace culture. Yet there is still more to be done.

One in six people will experience some form of mental health issue related to work this year, and six in 10 of those will not have spoken to anyone about it. Alongside this, 70 per cent of managers believe there are barriers to providing support for those they manage. 

While it's extremely positive that organisations across the UK are starting to pay attention to the mental health of their employees, a lot of the programmes still focus on reactive over proactive and preventive care – and herein lies the mental health gap.

The only way to close this gap is to start appreciating that we all have mental health, all of the time – and in turn, start proactively managing it, in the same way we do with other areas of our wellbeing. 

Throughout my career as a clinical psychologist, I've seen the consequences of treating mental ill-health too little too late. There have been numerous times where I have met people experiencing mental ill-health and wished that I had met them six months earlier, at a time where I could have helped prevent things from getting worse.

The first step for businesses to start tackling this is to ensure that they are making a concerted effort to develop a holistic mental health strategy and that the strategy has the buy-in and support of colleagues across the organisation, including senior leaders. 

To accomplish a proactive agenda, companies need to focus on breaking down the barriers around mental health and open up channels of communication which are free of judgement. The best way to do this is to start talking about mental health as something we all have every moment of our lives and that while it can cause us problems, it is ultimately the most amazing and unique part of being human. This will help normalise the conversation and allow people to speak more freely about their mental health before it reaches a crisis point. Fundamentally, everyone can benefit from mental health initiatives – whether it's to maintain peak performance or to seek critical support.

Training all employees to understand mental health (the whole spectrum, not just problems) is necessary. If people feel they understand a subject they will have more confidence to speak to others about it. It’s important to recognise that technology and digital solutions can help to solve some of these issues. People are busy and provisions need to be accessible, adaptable and fit around the preferences of your workforce. Digital platforms can facilitate this and can allow employees to monitor, manage, and improve their mental health proactively, confidentiality, and on a regular basis. 

Organisations that want to get the best from their people, while retaining and attracting talent, need to recognise that the time is now to move from words to actions – they have a duty to support and empower their employees. By implementing a holistic mental health strategy which embraces reactive and proactive initiatives, we can create working environments where mental health is universally understood, nurtured, and celebrated. We can create working environments where people reach their full potential.

Dr Nick Taylor is CEO and co-founder of Unmind