Employers are being encouraged to use 'Blue Monday' as a conversation starter around mental health in the workplace, and an opportunity to highlight available assistance for employees who might need it.
The third Monday in January, which this year falls today (15 January), has been billed as one of the most depressing days of the year, with miserable weather, debt and post-Christmas blues highlighted as the major contributing factors.
In a CV-Library survey of 1,200 workers more than a third (35 per cent) said they suffered mental health issues to some degree, with 42 per cent stating that their work was a key contributory factor. And the latest Britain's Healthiest Workplace (BHW) survey, developed by VitalityHealth in partnership with the University of Cambridge, RAND Europe and Mercer, revealed that employees lose an average of 30.4 productive days a year through sick days and underperformance because of ill-health.
The BHW put the combined annual economic impact to the UK economy of ill-health related absence and presenteeism at £77.5bn.
While mental health charity Mind has been critical of Blue Monday – stating that it "contributes to damaging misconceptions about depression and trivialises an illness that can be life-threatening" – other mental health bodies believe that despite its origins as a marketing campaign it acts as a useful conversation opener for mental health in the workplace.
Bertille Calinaud, senior inclusion and diversity consultant at Inclusive Employers, said: "I think any point in the year when we can highlight the impact of mental health in the workplace and use it as a way to raise awareness is useful."
She said HR teams could use Blue Monday and other forthcoming dates such as Time to Talk Day in February, Stress Awareness Month in April and Mental Health Awareness Week in May to remind employees of any health and wellbeing workplace benefits that can assist them with mental health challenges, such as employee assistance programmes, as well as trying to open up conversations about mental health in the workplace.
As well as having resources in place, which are well signposted for staff, a key factor in tackling workplace mental health should be aiming to remove the stigma often attached to mental health problems, Calinaud said: "HR should speak to senior leaders and see if they can champion the cause or be a role model, because we know that when senior leaders talk about their mental health it makes it more valid for others to talk about it."
Duncan Rzysko, chief innovation officer at the Stress Management Society, added that health and safety should be a cross-departmental concern, not solely a matter for HR. He believes there are a number of key factors in implementing successful wellbeing programmes at work: "First, you need ownership – who is going to do this? Whether it is HR or not, it must have buy-in from the board. You have to empower people to look after themselves, give access to services, ensure there is no division between mental and physical health, allow people to switch off when they go home and, lastly, have some evaluation – how do you know it is working?"
Rzysko said there should be metrics involved to back up whether health and wellbeing initiatives are working – whether that is measuring absenteeism rates or recruitment costs.
The government-backed Stevenson/Farmer review into mental health at work, which was released in October 2017, found that 300,000 people lose their job every year because of long-term mental health problems. Figures cited in the report also revealed that around 15 per cent of workers display symptoms of existing mental health problems.
Calinaud said that aside from the importance of promoting wellbeing, looking after employees’ health and wellbeing can have the added benefit of helping to protect against legal claims. Under the Equality Act 2010, mental health can be classed as a disability and can lead to employees challenging workplace discrimination.
"The more awareness there is, the less risk for the employer, and it helps mitigate the risk of legal problems," she added.