Opinion

Dear Sunak and Starmer: Workplace mental health is too serious to be used as a political football

Tackling poor mental health in our workplaces requires long-term political and business leadership

Image: Ben The Illustrator

There’s no shortage of issues being fought over in this general election, but one that all parties should have at the heart of their manifestos is mental health. Like many other countries, the UK is grappling with an epidemic of mental health challenges that pervade all aspects of life and undermine the foundations of our communities.

Among these communities are our workplaces, and new data is putting the spotlight on the importance of addressing mental health at work at the highest levels.

A new report, published today (12 June) by the Global Business Collaboration for Better Workplace Mental health (GBC), has found more than half (55%) of workers in the UK – in both blue and white collar roles – have experienced or are currently experiencing mental health challenges. Half of these workers say they have lacked motivation, interest or energy at work, while three in 10 have been less productive, put in less effort or felt a desire to quit. And there’s evidence to suggest that workplaces are exacerbating the issue, with nearly half (45%) of all respondents saying they experienced stress at work in the month prior to the study taking place.

These numbers should ring alarm bells for business and political leaders alike. By making clear the interactions between mental health issues and performance at individual, organisational and national levels, they call for bold policies and action by leaders. As this is not for individuals to solve.

At national level, this needs to include recognition of and open dialogue regarding the challenge, clinical interventions and measures that actively encourage employers to protect and support the wellbeing of their workforce. And at organisational level, this means using business acumen to elevate employee mental health to a board-level priority, with a long-term strategy to preventing and addressing issues, and unequivocal support for those experiencing them.

There is a lot at stake here. Beyond staggering costs – the World Health Organisation sighted that depression and anxiety result in 12 billion days of lost work each year – mental ill health threatens the long-term resilience of companies and economies.

To stay ahead of the curve, corporate and national leaders must create the conditions that support mental wellbeing and adapt to long-term shifts in how we live and work. And, not just for the ‘now’, but putting in place robust strategies that will outlive their tenures, creating the needed monumental shift for the next generation.

Attitudes towards mental health in the workplace are changing and many employers have started to put in place dedicated support – from digital apps to access subsidised counselling to mental health leave days. But, as the research shows, the most effective steps employers can take start with transforming individual behaviours and organisation-wide cultures to remove any stigma or taboo around mental health issues.

The numbers speak for themselves. In UK businesses headed by leader who speak out about mental health, 72% of workers say they are willing to disclose issues with their line manager. This falls to 38% in organisations where mental health is not discussed at the top. This is backed up by the qualitative insights gained from members of the GBC that show senior leaders who communicate authentically about mental health, including sharing their personal experiences of it or those of loved ones, play a pivotal role in creating a culture of acceptance and trust. Their authentic leadership is crucial to opening up conversations from the highest level down. It sends a clear message that senior leaders are also not immune to these challenges, whilst recognising where the power lies, whilst also  helping remove any misconceptions around people being held back by mental health issues or being judged or penalised for seeking help.

The behaviours of line managers are also game-changing. For example, UK workers who consider their manager well equipped to hold supportive conversations about mental health are far less likely to feel a desire to quit their job – 18% versus 37% for those working for less supportive managers. This shows that investing in dedicated training and systems that monitor and reward supportive leadership behaviours is well worth it, not least as it supports line managers’ development and confidence in discussing mental wellbeing in an ever increasing pressurised environment.

But while some progressive organisations are taking those steps, the majority are lagging behind. Only four in ten UK employees says their senior leader is vocal about mental health, and less than half of managers have received dedicated training on supporting people with mental health issues. Worse still, nearly half of people who opened up about mental health issues with their manager say they have felt discriminated as a result.

The message is clear: when it comes to creating mentally healthy and resilient workplaces where people feel safe in disclosing issues, the responsibility lies with leaders. Setting the tone from the top, equipping managers to be understanding and supportive, and making a visible commitment to promoting mental wellbeing needs to be high on the agenda of all board members and executives. And they, in turn, must be supported in their efforts by robust national strategies set by visionary political leaders.

Mental health can’t be used as a political football or to virtue signal; it’s a genuine opportunity to put ‘meaning’ at the heart of business. Because, when people suffer business is meaningless. Let’s make 2024 the year when this happens.

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Poppy Jaman is chair of the Global Business Collaboration (GBC) and founder and vice chair of MindForward Alliance.

The GBC – alongside its Founding Partners – is calling on senior leaders around the world to sign its Leadership Pledge to accelerate progress in workplace mental health. For more information, visit betterworkplacemh.com/globalpicture.

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