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Mental Health Awareness Week

Last week was Mental Health Awareness Week – a time to get people thinking, to start conversations and to encourage action around improving mental health. This week-long event to raise awareness on mental health issues has been running for 15 years, and there is no doubt that in this time there have been changes in attitudes to mental health. The stigma around the matter is constantly being challenged and communities and workplaces are growing in their understanding of what mental health really means.

Nonetheless, the results of an AXA PPP healthcare survey, published in April, revealed that companies have a very long way to go when it comes to dealing positively with mental health. The study was carried out among 1000 senior business managers and 1000 employees, and showed an image that is far from perfect. According to the survey, two thirds of managers did not believe that suffering from stress, anxiety or depression was a serious enough reason for staff to take time off work.

Asked how they would react if an employee was facing mental health issues, one in five said they would “worry about the employee’s capability to do their job,” while one in six said they would “worry about the consequences for themselves personally, such as it reflecting poorly on their management style or having to pick up additional work”. The responses were perhaps surprising given that one in four managers said that they had experienced mental health problems themselves.

And responses from the employees’ side appeared to show a vicious circle effect in action. Only 39% of employees said they would tell the truth when calling in sick because of stress, anxiety or depression. For those who would not, almost a quarter (23%) said this was because they were afraid they would be judged, while the same percentage said they preferred to keep their health issues private – indicating that stigma still plays too great a part in workers’ relationships with mental health. What’s more, almost half (46%) of employees said they didn’t think their employer took mental health seriously.

And they seem to have a point – in spite of mental health issues repeatedly being cited as a leading cause for long term absence in business, just 12% of bosses surveyed thought their industry was affected by mental ill health.

In spite of these underlying issues, some 54% of employers thought that attitudes towards mental ill health in the workplace had changed for the better in the past fifteen years, compared with 30% who said that they had not seen any change.

While awareness is, at least on the surface, increasing and there are plenty of employers who do understand the issues and are taking action to improve their own approaches to mental health in the workplace, it seems there is still a long way to go.

Dr Mark Winwood, director of clinical psychology at AXA PPP healthcare, said: “Stress and mental health issues affect one in four people on average in any given year and one in six at any given time. With this rate of occurrence, we need to work harder to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental ill health. Businesses are well placed to lead the way to changing this harmful prejudice by giving their employees the necessary tools and support to enable them to discuss mental health in an open and unbiased way.

“Lack of understanding breeds fear so improving employees’ awareness and understanding of mental illness is one of the most important things a company’s senior management team can do and a critical first step is to challenge the stigma surrounding mental ill health in the workplace.”

There are a broad range of measures that can be brought in to help tackle this crucial issue – and they don’t need to be huge or complicated. Much of it is about creating an environment where mental health is not something that people feel they can discuss. Promoting an open and honest culture is vital, says Dr Winwood: “I have seen that senior managers who have been open and felt able to share their own experiences of mental health challenges and worries have often succeeded in developing an environment that is more accepting. Training and supporting managers to deal with employees affected by mental ill health (including letting them know what employee assistance programmes are available) will also help to give them the confidence to provide effective support where and when it is needed.”

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