It is estimated that one in six adults had a common mental health problem in the last week. Not only does this lead to much individual suffering, but the damage to the economy is also great with health and social care costs and lost output amounting to over £100bn in the UK. The crisis is only set to get worse: if no action is taken, depression will be the leading illness globally by 2030.
While the issue is gaining more prominence – and certainly there are many celebrities coming forward to talk about their own mental health issues – in the business world, it is more of a challenge.
There are few business leaders that openly admit to struggling with mental health, and yet this could be a powerful driver in gaining more recognition and acceptance of the problem. And businesses have a duty to act given that two-thirds of employees have experienced mental ill health caused by work, according to the charity Business in the Community (BITC).
Legally, employers are obliged to do something, or at least not discriminate. The Equality Act 2010 protects against discrimination on the grounds of disability, and that includes mental health. But it is also in the interests of business to take action given that an employee who is mentally unwell is likely to find it hard to function to the best of their ability if they are unsupported.
Fortunately in-roads are being made. In May, The Legal Professions Wellbeing Taskforce was launched to promote and support mental health in the legal industry in England and Wales. Initiated by the Law Society and driven by LawCare, a charity which provides support to the legal community, its aim is to enable collaboration so that best practice can be shared and help end the stigma around mental illness.
Some law firms have also signed up to Time to Change, a campaign to help stop mental health discrimination. They include Berwin Leighton Paisner and Trowers & Hamlins, which has initiatives such as resilience seminars for staff, the development of a wellbeing resources hub, and the training of mental health ‘first-aiders’. Several other law firms have joined the City Mental Health Alliance. These include Herbert Smith Freehills, which has launched a mental health mentor programme, training volunteers across the firm.
Even so, there’s a long way to go. Many people do not feel comfortable talking about their mental health at work. Indeed the BITC study found that only 11% of employees had discussed their problems with their line manager, and only a quarter said they felt able to talk to someone at work, such as a colleague, line manager, or HR practitioner.
For job candidates, the issue is compounded – should they tell new employers about their condition? If so, at what stage? Much depends on the individual, the severity of the condition and how much it impacts their working lives. There is no obligation to reveal a mental health condition and revealing issues upfront can feel risky, when clearly there remains some stigma around this. On the other hand, however, at least by being open the candidate can find out before they take up a job offer how supportive that employer will be.
Under the Disability Act, employers are obliged to make ‘reasonable’ adjustments to help those defined as disabled (a mental or physical impairment that has a substantial long-term effect on normal day-to-day activities) carry out their role. These adjustments, in the case of mental health, could be flexible working patterns, providing a quiet space, and offering a mentor scheme. But businesses can only help if they are aware of the condition.
Ending the stigma
And we’re back to a vicious circle. The stigma has to stop in order for sufferers to feel comfortable coming forward. This requires education at all levels as to what mental illness is – and isn’t. Those with depression, for example, cannot simply ‘snap out of it’ anymore than someone with cancer could.
People are at the heart of a business. But people are human; they become ill, whether physically or mentally. Given that one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year, you are likely to know someone or be a sufferer yourself. Everyone has a duty of care. Only when people are truly supported can they reach their potential, bringing huge benefits to business, society and the individual.
For further advice, visit the Mental Health Foundation