This is always a tricky question because can this be easily calculated? Well, let’s start by looking at the costs of mental health problems in the UK. It is estimated that the total cost is around £105 Billion a year, about £50 billion of that is the cost to the individual and the impact on their life because of living with a mental health problem. The remaining £50 billion is made up of health care costs at around £20 billion and the cost to businesses and industry at around £30 billion (now I’ve been a bit loose with the breakdown of the figures but what’s a billion or two between friends!) I’m guessing you’re getting the point that we’re talking big numbers. That £30 billion breaks down to about £1,300 per employee each year; stress and mental health problems are now the biggest cause of sickness absence in the workplace (on average about 2.5 days a year per employee in the UK; overtaking MSK problems – many of which, I would argue, are stress related/masking).
The problems seem to be getting worse, with more and more people experiencing debilitating levels of stress harming their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. No, not all of this is caused by the workplace (the HSE provide a brilliant breakdown of the stress risk factors at work). Home and family life can be stressful – health issues, relational problems, teenage daughters, the neighbours’ and other people’s behaviour (if I’m feeling particularly fed up I often feel that Sartre’s expression is a truism, “Hell is other people”, although generally I don’t subscribe to this, but that can be an indicator that my stress levels are rising). We don’t live in hermetically sealed environments; we carry with us, as Brabban and Turkington described, our very own stress bucket, which on a day to day basis gets filled with ‘stuff’ and on a day to day basis we empty or find ways to carry that bucket that can be helpful and nourishing or unhelpful and depleting. These are the things that will either add to our woes and in combination with the stressors lead to mental ill health or help us to be resilient, cope and remain ‘well’. We carry this ‘bucket’ wherever we go and our reactions and responses to those stressors, whilst some people are adamant that they are able to leave stuff at the garden/work gates and whatever stuff they are dealing with they don’t take it home or take it to work – that may just be their perception (as stress starts to have an impact on the individual they can very much operate in a zone of delusion and not be aware that they are displaying the signs or experiencing the symptoms of stress).
So, given the cost of stress and mental health problems (whether the root of the problem is the workplace or home) what can businesses do? Well, do you have a workplace strategy around mental health?
If you consider your strategy for a moment; is it both proactive as well as reactive? Many workplaces are now looking at training people in Mental Health First Aid, which is a huge step in the right direction. This can help staff members recognise the signs and symptoms of a range of mental health problems and give them the confidence to respond to those signs and symptoms appropriately. This early intervention has been shown to reduce recovery times, reducing the length of an absence from work or prevent the need to take time off from work (in the end, work is good for us). But this is a reactive strategy – the problems are emerging and the organisation is responding.
What about being proactive? We’re not really taught how to be resilient. It’s seen as an innate human capacity and to an extent, it is because for the most part we do manage and we can bounce back even in the face of huge adversity ( that’s not to say it doesn’t take its toll though). But we also know that resilience can be taught and we know that we can help people understand which activities are nourishing (sleep; exercise; a balanced diet; being emotionally literate) and which are depleting (alcohol, cigarettes and other drugs, overwork; procrastination and avoidance of issues). It may seem obvious but many people just recognise that these are the tools that work for them, it’s what they’ve always done without recognising or realising that it is causing them problems in the here and now and storing up problems for the future.
Now I know some managers will say it’s not their responsibility to interfere with the private lives of individuals, and I would agree. But from a purely business point of view, an employee that is absent from work is not productive and is costly! Surely, if that possibility can be reduced through investment in teaching and encouraging wellbeing strategies (setting aside the moral imperative) then it is the right thing to do?
Measuring the Return on Investment is hard, it really can’t be done in any meaningful way in the short term; yes, we can do questionnaires and the such like, but to measure real change that needs a longer-term approach but it’s an approach that’s worth taking if we want our businesses to grow and thrive with a workforce that feels valued and supported.
Thanks for reading