The 10th October this year marks World Mental Health Day – an international day of recognition of the legitimacy and urgency of mental health issues across society. Over the past 18 months, we have seen an explosion of mental health into the mainstream. One of the more subtle impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the consequences of lockdown upon everyone’s mental health. While the more visceral tragedy of the pandemic in the context of strained health services and overcrowded hospitals made the headlines, it is safe to say that the cross-societal mental health implications of isolation and social withdrawal were just as profound.
The research backs this up. Multiple population measures of psychological distress from 2020 and 2021 revealed significant ‘up and down’ trends in line with the national lockdowns. Between 2019 and April 2020, there was a country-wide increase of nearly 10% of symptoms of anxiety, depression, sleep deprivation and stress – exactly around the time of the first lockdown. When the second lockdown happened at the end of 2020, the same change in distress levels was recorded.
What this shows us is two things. The first is that collective societal mental health is incredibly susceptible to change. Just like our bodies, our minds can be damaged by external stimuli. Rather than a fixed binary of mental health – you either have mental health issues or you do not – the evidence suggests that mental wellbeing is in a constant fluctuating state. You may be happy and healthy one month, and mentally down and out the next. The second conclusion we can draw is to do with the broad, cross-societal nature of mental health. Of course, certain people may be more susceptible to mental health issues due to societal or genetic factors, but those reporting distress in these studies are not necessarily those with pre-existing issues. Some may not have experienced anything like anxiety or depression before, but reported struggling as the pandemic wore on. Instead, what the data shows is that anyone can have poor mental health at any time.
Despite the doom and gloom of the pandemic, there are some positives to take here as well. The most explicit is that mental health is now firmly in the mainstream conversation. Pre-pandemic conversations around mental health were trending in a positive direction, with conditions like depression and anxiety slowly being de-stigmatised and legitimised. However, with the pandemic and the subsequent isolation of large swathes of society – not to mention the stress and strain of key workers who continued to work during this time – this trend was hugely accelerated. Now we’re seeing major celebrities and sportspeople candidly speak about their own struggles with no sense of shame, a cultural moment that felt very unrealistic a few years ago.
But what does this have to do with the workplace? Well, just as the proliferation of occupational health services recognises that physical health issues impact cost and workplace productivity, a similar recognition to do with mental health services is warranted. In fact, around 45% of sickness absence is directly related to mental health, and 13.8 million working days are lost each year due to stress, anxiety and depression. Not only does mental health massively impact your employees, but it undoubtedly leads to unnecessary cost and a significant loss of productivity.
A major reason for this is that the broader societal and cultural de-stigmatisation of mental health does not necessarily fit into the workplace employer/employee, or employee-to-employee, dynamic. Only 13% of employees feel comfortable talking about mental health at work, and this must change. Most people spend a majority of their waking lives at work, and if that is not a place where they can seek help for their issues, then the strides that have been made in the mainstreaming of mental health have the potential to be largely ineffective.
There are multiple ways around the reluctance of employees to engage in mental health when it come to the workplace. The first is the implementation of a confidential counselling and advice service, like an employee assistance programme (EAP). The idea here is an employee funded service that removes the employer/employee dynamic, establishing a safe space for open and honest communication with counsellors who can actively help and counter employees’ mental health troubles. For an employee to know that there is a reliable and confidential place to go for support can be incredibly encouraging, and often the act of opening up to someone can lead to a major uplift in mental wellbeing.
A second effective measure is the act of training and upskilling teams and managers to recognise and deal with the signs of poor mental health. These are complicated and tricky issues, so much so that colleagues and managers often either feel that they cannot approach an employee who is struggling, or they simply cannot spot the signs. It is important to remember that mental health is invisible, unlike physical health, and can manifest in a range of symptoms – such as irritability or aggression. By having a clinically led set of training sessions for either teams or managers, people within organisations can be given the skills to recognise when someone is struggling, and the language, tact, and sensitivity to help them.
Line managers are absolutely pivotal in developing a positive approach to mental health in the workplace. They are usually the ones responsible for dealing with mental health in their teams on a day-to-day basis, but they can often lack the confidence or expertise to manage this alone. Take advantage of the conversation around World Mental Health Day to ask your line managers what they are doing to ensure their team’s mental health. Remind them that there is a wealth of resources out there dedicated to training and upskilling managers to be able to handle these kinds of complex and tricky subjects.
This World Mental Health Day, take the time to evaluate your organisation’s approach to mental health in the workplace. Does your approach reflect the open de-stigmatisation of mental health across society? Do you have effective and compassionate mental health processes when it comes to your employees? If not, utilise this international day of mental health recognition to look into some clinically led mental health support to give your employees the help they need.
The World Health Organisation predicts that depression will become the world’s most common illness by 2030, suggesting that the global burden of the condition will be greater than that of diabetes, heart disease or cancer. If they have not already done so, it is up to employers to take preventative and proactive action to prevent these issues occurring. The reward for getting this right is a happier, healthier and more productive workforce, and a more successful organisation.