What we learned from the BITC ‘Mental Health First Aid’ conference 

Despite government interventions, mental health is still the leading cause of sickness absence in the UK, with 70 million days of work lost each year due to workers suffering from stress, depression, and other mental health conditions. On #Timetotalk day, a panel of leadership experts gathered at an event hosted by Business in the Community (BITC) and Royal Mail Group, to discuss what more needs to be done to encourage better support and handling of mental health in the workplace.

Here are five things we learned from the session:

There’s still a culture of silence around mental health at work
According to a new report from BITC, ‘Leading on mental wellbeing: transforming the role of line managers’, only 39 per cent of employees said they would be honest with their line manager when calling in sick, if they were suffering from stress and anxiety or depression. Line managers themselves are increasingly suffering from stress-related illness and poor mental health, with the average manager working 46 extra days in the course of a year, and three in five managers reporting concerns about the impact of longer working hours on their mental wellbeing.

“It’s important to remember that one in four people a year will suffer from a mental health issue at some point, and one in twelve will suffer from depression.” Luciana Berger, the shadow health minister for mental health said, which will ultimately impact staff performance at work. “Employers must be prepared to recognise the scale of this challenge, and to play a role in addressing it,” she added.

Mental health is costly
As well as impacting on employee productivity and wellbeing, poor mental health is costing the economy an estimated £26bn a year – or £1,000 per employee. “If you’re a big company like ours, you’ll probably find that 30-35 per cent of your drug bill is related to stress alleviators or even more serious mental health problems,” said Moya Greene, chief executive of Royal Mail Group.

Managers lack the skills and tools to resolve the issue
“Line managers must be trained to recognise the early signs of stress and poor mental health among their employees – and must learn to ask quality questions,” said Poppy Jaman, the chief executive of Mental Health First Aid England. Managers can help to normalise mental health by being prepared to ask questions, such as ‘you don’t seem yourself, is there anything you would like to talk about?’, and having honest conversations about depression and self–harm; but there must be dedicated training for this function, which only 50 per cent of managers are currently receiving.

HR has a fundamental role to play in encouraging the dialogue
As working culture becomes increasingly intense, with rising presenteeism and overtime, HR has a profound role to play in furthering the conversation about mental health.

“HR professionals must know who to turn to and who to recommend to colleagues where mental health is concerned,” said Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD. “Having a resource within an organisation is fundamental to resolving this.”

“Mental health and wellbeing is a fundamental aspect of any business, and HR must be better at calling it out and equipping line managers with the tools to deal with it,” he added.

Work could be the solution
While work can be a cause of mental stress, it can also provide a solution, if company culture is able to deal with mental health in a positive and effective way.

“We have spent about 30 years medicalising work, and this has to stop,” Greene said. “If we are going to be part of the solution to mental health in work, front line managers must be competent with talking to their employees, and help them to understand that their professional community is also a support community.”