A joined-up approach is needed to tackle mental ill-health

Only by treating mental health issues like any other illness will people finally start asking for the help they need

On World Mental Health Day – a time for bringing attention to mental illness and its effects on people’s lives – it’s saddening to see the mental health of the workforce continuing to deteriorate. According to the Mental Health at Work Report 2017, released by Business in the Community and sponsored by Mercer, three out of five employees have experienced a mental health issue in the last year because of work, or where work was a related factor, and 31 per cent have been formally diagnosed with a mental health issue.

Despite this, just one in 10 employees (11 per cent) felt able to disclose a mental health issue to their line manager, with the topic remaining one of the most difficult to talk about. Those surveyed said they felt more comfortable talking about other issues, such as race, age, physical health and religious belief.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t surprise me. People don’t want to talk about their mental health to their line manager because, first, there’s still a fundamental issue with the way we talk about it. If someone is sick with influenza we say ‘they have flu’, never ‘they are flu’. The implication is that this is something from which they can recover. Yet if someone is sick with depression, we say ‘they are depressed’, as if this now defines them entirely. It would be far better to say ‘they have depression’, with the implication that there is a clear treatment pathway in place.

Second, even if their manager is one of the very few individuals equipped with exceptional empathy and compassion, sufferers know most managers will have no idea what to do with them. What use is a one-off mental health day or a standalone mindfulness seminar to someone who can’t come into work because they’ve developed a crippling anxiety disorder?

If this year’s research teaches us anything, it’s that record investment in disjointed, tactical wellbeing initiatives are failing to deliver. Strategic mental health pathways must be created and used to normalise people’s experience of recovering from and managing mental health issues, in much the same way that physical assessments and workplace adjustments have normalised people’s experience of, and willingness to seek help with, musculoskeletal issues.

At the same time, we need to start viewing people as ‘joined up’ human beings whose physical and mental health are inextricably intertwined, so that we can start creating policies that address wellbeing as a whole. This is important because if someone is struggling to manage their income, they are likely to not only experience stress and anxiety but also sleep loss, causing them to want to eat unhealthily because they feel tired.

Even if an employee might not yet have any physical or mental health issues, and may even consider themselves to be healthy, by encouraging them to look at their financial health you can support them to identify and prevent future problems.

Although it was hoped that an explicit focus on mental health would help more employees to get help sooner, this hasn’t been the case. The reality is that destigmatisation of mental health is still sorely needed and employees naturally feel more comfortable talking about their energy levels and the concept of feeling flat or lethargic than they do about their mental health.

By taking a step back from putting such an explicit focus on mental health, and looking at all of the eight dimensions of wellbeing*, employers have an opportunity to start normalising mental health by creating people-shaped policies that prevent problems from arising in the first place.

*Eight dimensions of wellbeing, created by Mercer in association with Oliver Wyman:

  1. Physical – I take good physical care of my body
  2. Emotional – I can express and manage my feelings
  3. Spiritual – There is meaning and purpose to my life
  4. Social – I enjoy regular positive interactions with others
  5. Financial – I can manage my income to good effect
  6. Intellectual – I have opportunities to learn and stretch myself
  7. Environmental – I have positive thoughts about the world around me
  8. Occupational – I have goals I’m enjoying striving to achieve

Dr Wolfgang Seidl is a partner and workplace health consulting leader at Mercer