Mental health is one of the biggest challenges affecting employers and the workplace today, with one in six workers experiencing some form of stress, anxiety or depression, according to research from the mental health charity MIND. In the UK, mental ill-health is responsible for 91 million working days lost each year, costing employers £34.9 billion.
The transition from being a student at university, where individuals are often surrounded by a close support network and peer group, to entering the world of work, can be especially difficult. Embarking on a new career is often the result of hard work and therefore an exciting time, but it can still be a daunting experience.
Evidence suggests that poor mental health is increasing among further education and higher education students. In 2017, The Association of Colleges (AOC) conducted a review with 105 further education colleges in England and found that 85 per cent of colleges reported increased mental health problems in the past three years.
Disclosing mental health issues
Poor mental health can affect any of us, at any given time, but starting a new job can present people with many new challenges and pressures. Recent research from the City Mental Health Alliance (CMHA) found that 74 per cent of UK students and graduates looking for a career in the financial, professional and legal sectors are worried about meeting the expectations of their new employers, with 69 per cent saying they had at some point experienced mental ill-health. Given these findings, perhaps unsurprisingly 62 per cent said they are concerned about the impact a new job will have on their mental health.
We have to ask whether employers are creating an environment for those early in their careers to be able to be open about their mental health experiences and seek support when needed. Just one in five (8 per cent) of the 519 students and graduates surveyed said they would feel comfortable disclosing a mental health issue on their application, with 41 per cent stating they would avoid ever mentioning that they lived with a long-term mental health issue.
Most of us spend more time at work than anywhere else. Yet, the research shows it is often here where many people feel unable to talk about their mental health. Businesses have a vital role to play in protecting the wellbeing of their employees and creating mentally healthy workplaces where people can flourish. This support needs to be at the outset of any person’s career. For mental health to be treated the same as physical health, graduates entering the workplace should feel able to talk openly about their mental health – good and bad – from day one, without fear of damaging their career prospects.
Early intervention is not only a vital element for encouraging positive mental health for those with a pre-existing condition, but it is also effective as a prevention tool. People entering the workplace now are the business leaders of the future. If people experience an open culture from the very start, good practice can be embedded into an organisation’s culture for many years to come for future generations.
To address stigma and to change the way society, governments, education and workplaces respond to mental illness we need to create a global movement that includes awareness campaigns, public education, guides on changing practice and even more evidence on what works. One initiative recently launched to help create a culture of openness for those early in their careers is the CMHA’s Thriving From The Start Network. This is run and managed by people early in their careers to create a supportive community for recent joiners to financial and professional services companies in the City, including banks, law firms, insurers and accountancy firms.
Supporting a positive start
The network aims to encourage younger City workers to feel safe and comfortable to speak openly about mental health issues, discuss any challenges, share ideas and feedback insights to City business leaders. For many people, support from peers can be as helpful as support from professionals and the Thriving From The Start network provides people with a safe space to discuss mental health openly, in a supportive environment.
Although 83 per cent of students and graduates said they would be more likely to apply to a potential employer that was open about its mental health commitments, 76 per cent said they didn’t have any information about any mental health or wellbeing support from prospective employers. There is no better time to get this right. In short, the message is clear: businesses need to prioritise staff wellbeing and put mental health on the agenda as a key boardroom issue in order to build a healthy and flourishing workforce.
Poppy Jaman OBE is CEO of City Mental Health Alliance