Time to take the pledge

Poor mental health is bad for business – by pledging to address the issue organisations can start to move to a better way of operating says IHC senior consultant Paul Roberts

When two major players in the British banking world were forced to take a break from their jobs largely because of stress-related illness, the news hit the headlines, and share prices, hard. Lloyds chief Antonio Horta-Osorio took time off work in 2011, with reasons given including insomnia, exhaustion and stress. Then in October 2013, Sir Hector Sants, Barclays’ head of global compliance, took leave and subsequently resigned from his position, citing similar problems.

It may come as little surprise that City jobs at this level take their toll on people at the top. Working excruciatingly long hours in any job is hard to sustain over time, and arguably more so when you throw in a high profile and highly pressured work environment.

The financial sector does not have the best reputation when it comes to looking after employees’ wellbeing, but businesses in all sectors need to be reminded that the impact of stress, and other mental health problems, is not just felt by the individuals involved, but also by the companies they are working for. Shares at both Barclays and Lloyds plummeted on the news of their executives’ ill health. Stress was quite literally bad for business.

Horta-Osorio’s timing was particularly apt. His leave of absence almost coincided with a 2011 CIPD/Simply Health report that showed that, for the first time, stress was the most common cause of long-term sickness absence for both manual and non-manual employees. It has been cited numerous times in subsequent years as one of the key triggers for absence in the UK.

Horta-Osorio and Sants’ profile made mental health a boardroom talking point. We all know staff dealing with high levels of stress can suffer – but to see it have a very real affect on the careers of such successful figures, and their employers, brought the issue into sharp focus.

The government has taken a number of encouraging steps towards addressing mental health over recent years. Back in 2010, the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Health announced that they would be working with armed forces charity Combat Stress to move forward the recommendations of a report into military mental health. And in 2013, the Department for Work and Pensions published an independent review of mental health problems and their impact on people’s ability to work.

Mental health deserves to be made a priority in the workplace. And implementing changes that will improve staff’s wellbeing – physical and well as mental – need not require a large investment; small measures can make a big impact. Many organisations already have an employee assistance programme (EAP) linked to their group risk or private medical insurance, for example. This is not just a ‘nice to have,’ it is proven to be a good and cost-effective resource with good return on investment (ROI). Recent research from Canada, for example, shows up to 1:10 times ROI when there is a good level of engagement from the firm. That engagement is essential – staff need to know about, trust and most importantly use the EAP provided, and making that happen is down to the employer and adviser.  

Improving and supporting workforce wellbeing requires a commitment from an employer and a culture that should be upheld throughout the organisation, no matter how big or small. It involves a high level of engagement to help staff to stay physically fit, and the establishing of frameworks that ensure any potential issues are spotted and dealt with early.

What can amount to a positive sea change for an organisation can begin with a straightforward collective pledge, [https://responsibilitydeal.dh.gov.uk/health-at-work-pledges/] outlining the changes to be made, the steps to be taken and planning for ways in which to measure the impact on the workforce. The negative results of a failure to address workplace wellbeing often appear too late.  

And when better to start a new approach to wellbeing than at the beginning of a New Year? So whatever your organisation’s plans for 2015, I believe workplace wellbeing should be at the heart of them. A positive approach to mental health is essential to a healthy business, and ensuring a company’s culture is vocal in being supportive, and that everyone is aware and they have access to an excellent support programme, can make all the difference.