Best Practice October 2017

World Mental Health Day

Wellness in the workplace

Have you ever considered the cost of mental health in the workplace, how much firms are losing because of mental health-related issues among their employees, and how much they could save with some simple investments?

We all know that mental health—whether in the workplace, the home or in society at large—is a huge issue that is rarely addressed or given the attention it deserves. That is why the World Health Organization (WHO), in conjunction with the World Foundation of Mental Health, designated 10 October as a day to promote global awareness of, and call to action for, mental health. Every year, this event promotes open discussions on mental illnesses as well as investments in prevention and treatment services. This year, the focus is on mental health in the workplace.

Worldwide, more than 600mn people suffer from depression or anxiety according to figures published in The Lancet. That is one in four people, or one in five in the workplace. Whether we know it or not, we all have co-workers, managers, friends or family members who are affected by this. As you read this article, you may realise that this applies to you, too. In 2016, a WHO study estimated that a staggering 12bn working days will be lost to depression and anxiety every year until 2030, with a loss in productivity of more than $900bn.

Lifting the stigma
Like in most other industrialised countries, the number of people struggling with mental illness in Japan has been steadily increasing over the past decade. A recent, four-year longitudinal Japanese study by the Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry found that long work hours—along with unclear job descriptions and the inability to exercise discretion in performing tasks—notably erodes the mental health of workers. The research also found that, when a colleague is suffering from a mental illness, the mental health of other workers is also likely to be poor.

This has spurred legislators in several countries to try to address this pandemic. Nevertheless, stigma and the lack of awareness of mental health issues in the workplace persist as barriers to equality. Many employees are reluctant to come forward and tell managers about their mental health issues for fear of jeopardising their jobs.

Research published in 2012 that pooled public attitudes from several different national surveys suggests that, although there is growing awareness of the effectiveness of mental health treatments, social acceptance of colleagues with mental illness has not improved in the past 20 years. The research also found that those with a mental health problem were rated lower in terms of social acceptance by colleagues, friends, neighbours and in-laws than those with either a physical disability or no disability at all.

What is the social cost of this? All around the world, stigma, prejudice and discrimination surrounding mental illnesses deprive people of their dignity, and act as barriers to vital support and treatment options. All too often, people can feel like a failure, they can feel hopeless and they can tragically feel like taking their own life because they are unaware that help is available.

In Japan, while the number of suicides has decreased in recent years, there are still 60 people who end their own lives every day. We know that for every completed suicide, there are an estimated 25 attempts. This number is just too high.

What to do
Luckily, a shift in societal attitudes is slowly moving us in a better direction. As our societies and workplaces change, traditional ways of looking at the workforce are being re-evaluated. Many younger employees rate workplaces that value employee wellbeing much higher when weighing up potential job offers. Provisions for wellbeing in the workplace not only help retain employees, but can also help attract top talent. Is your workplace mental health friendly? Below are some guidelines to get you started:

  • Welcome all qualified job applicants and value diversity
  • Include healthcare that treats mental illness with the same urgency as physical illness
  • Have programmes and practices that promote and support employee health and/or work–life balance
  • Provide training for managers and front-line supervisors in mental health workplace issues
  • Safeguard the confidentiality of employee health information
  • Provide an employee assistance programme or other appropriate referral resources to assist managers and employees
  • Support employees who seek treatment or who require hospitalisation and disability leave, and develop a return-to-work plan
  • Ensure that “exit with dignity” is a corporate priority, should it become necessary for an employee to end their employment
  • Provide all employees with access to information regarding equal opportunity employment, health and wellness programmes and similar topics