Why do we need to take mental wellbeing as seriously as physical health at work?

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Physical and mental health are equal partners in the maintenance of wellbeing. However, the value of promoting mental wellbeing is often overlooked in the workplace.

An integrated approach to health

The World Health Organization Constitution Principles describe health as:

“A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” World Health Organization, 2006

This statement is indicative of the integrated approach to healthcare now endorsed by leading organisations, and key opinion leaders (e.g. NHS Five Year Forward ViewThe Kings Fund). This approach is entirely sensible when you consider that mental and physical healthcare are inextricably linked.

People who have a chronic, physical health complaint are twice as likely to develop poor mental health (Public Health England, 2018). Indeed, having more than one long-term condition increases the likelihood of developing a mental health problem sevenfold (Public Health England, 2018). This risk-relationship runs both ways, as two-thirds of people with serious mental health problems die prematurely from treatable physical health conditions (e.g. infections).

Despite physical and mental health being equal partners in the maintenance of wellbeing, mental illness is disproportionately stigmatised. With this in mind, leading organisations are committed to promoting the importance of mental wellbeing.

Find out how to improve mental wellbeing in your organisation 

Leading organisations stand by the importance of promoting mental wellbeing

The World Health Organization, in a strengthening stance on mental health, claim that:

“Mental health is a state of wellbeing in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” World Health Organization, 2018

Within this view of mental health, it is not enough to just acknowledge mental wellbeing when a disorder (e.g. depression) is diagnosed. Instead, proactive steps must be taken to promote and protect mental wellbeing throughout the lifespan (World Health Organization, 2018). Considering that stressful work conditions are a significant trigger for mental illness (World Health Organization, 2018), many of these proactive steps may well fall with employers.

Indeed, the Thriving at Work review made the following recommendations for all employers to implement in the workplace, in efforts to promote the mental wellbeing of their workforce (Stevenson & Farmer, 2017, pg. 8):

    1. Produce, implement and communicate a mental health at work plan
    2. Develop mental health awareness among employees
    3. Encourage open conversations about mental health and the support available when employees are struggling
    4. Provide your employees with good working conditions
    5. Promote effective people management
    6. Routinely monitor employee mental health and wellbeing

But why should employers take mental health as seriously as physical health?

Apart from the social implications, the financial ramifications of poor mental health are huge. A review of the UK workforce in 2017 found that mental health cost UK employers £35 billion in 2016 (Centre for Mental Health, 2017). The breakdown of the costs are depicted in the pie chart below.

Figure 1. Pie chart reproduced from Centre for Mental Health 2017 review. Work place absence (“absenteeism”, £10.6 billion), productivity loss whilst at work (“presenteeeism”, £21.2 billion), and replacing staff who leave due to mental ill health (£3.1 billion) (Centre for Mental Health, 2017).

What is particularly staggering about these findings is the substantial losses (£21.2 billion) due to “presenteeism”, which would indicate that people are either unwilling or unable to say that they are struggling at work and receive assistance. This unwillingness is likely a product of the social stigma which still surrounds mental health in the workplace, resulting in a fear of negative consequences  (e.g. potentially being passed over for promotion) in admitting they might need help.

This finding highlights a need for employers to proactively promote employees’ mental wellbeing. When a workplace makes a sustained commitment to mental wellbeing, a culture of acceptance is cultivated. The consequence of which is employees feel more confident to come forward at an earlier stage in their struggle, and openly discuss where their workplace stressors are. The overall aim of this open-approach is to address presenteeism and prevent absenteeism, allowing employees to thrive at work. This concept is depicted on page 16 of the Thriving at Work review  (Stevenson & Farmer, 2017, pg. 16).

Figure 2. Schematic reproduced from page 16 of the Thriving at Work review  (Stevenson & Farmer, 2017, pg. 16), of the three phases people experience in work.

What next? 

In this article, we have summarised why businesses should take employees’ mental wellbeing as seriously as their physical health.

In the next instalment, we will outline how employers can promote better mental wellbeing in their organisations, to benefit both their staff and their businesses.

This article was originally published by Cambridge Cognition.

References

Centre for Mental Health. (2017). Mental health at work: The business costs ten years on. Retrieved from https://www.centreformentalhealth.org.uk/mental-health-at-work-report

Public Health England. (2018). Wellbeing and mental health: Applying All Our Health – GOV.UK. Retrieved June 14, 2018, from https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/wellbeing-in-mental-health-applying-all-our-health/wellbeing-in-mental-health-applying-all-our-health

Stevenson, D., & Farmer, P. (2017). Thriving at work: The independent review of mental health and employers. Retrieved from https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/658145/thriving-at-work-stevenson-farmer-review.pdf

World Health Organization. (2006). Constitution of The World Health Organization. Basic Document Forthy-Fifth Edition, (January 1984), 1–18. https://doi.org/12571729

World Health Organization. (2018). Mental health: strengthening our response. WHO. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-health-strengthening-our-response

“There is no health without mental health” (World Health Organisation, 2018)