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How Workplaces Can Support Our Nation's Mental Health

How Workplaces Can Support Our Nation's Mental Health
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Poppy Jaman, CEO of the CMHA, looks at how businesses can help to avert a mental health crisis.

Before the pandemic, the Lancet Commission pointed to mental illness being on the rise in every country in the world. The Commission estimated that the cost to the global economy will hit $16 trillion by 2030, while the human cost is immeasurable.  

COVID-19 has the potential to make the situation worse than predicted. The impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of the nation was instant as we saw an immediate increase in demand for mental health services, with some UK helplines reporting a 300% increase in traffic. The ONS said that 19.2% of British adults had some form of depression in June, up from 9.7% before the pandemic.

Workplaces have an opportunity and a responsibility

The whole of society needs to think about how we can take positive action in the face of a mental health crisis. And businesses and workplaces, the cornerstone of any society, can play a crucial role. Studies on the way people accessed mental health support during the lockdown shows that 49% did so through the NHS, 23% private providers and 9% through workplaces. I found that last stat heartening - more workplaces are realising the opportunity they have, and the responsibility, to help support the positive health and wellbeing of their people. Further, workplaces are well placed to offer mental health support at an early stage, when it is most effective. So this early intervention can both stop people from reaching crisis point and requiring NHS services, thereby taking pressure off our health system.

Over the last year, CMHA members have inspired me by the way in which they have supported the mental health and wellbeing of their people. They moved quickly to provide interventions such as remote access to Mental Health First Aiders and onsite counsellors, to mental health awareness training for line managers and Board members, to creating buddy systems for those people who needed extra companionship to updating and introducing bereavement and domestic abuse policies to support those who may need it. Mentally healthy cultures not only create psychological safety where people can be themselves and feel more comfortable in asking for help. A positive approach to supporting mental health builds trust, increases morale and loyalty. Those organisations who invest in their people now will be more likely to have an engaged and thriving workforce, which will help them to build back better.

Supporting the hidden workforce

I have also heard more businesses talk about what they can do to support those key workers in businesses also known as the ‘unseen  workforce'. Those people who are behind the scenes in routine, service and manual roles - such as, security, cleaning, transport, hospitality and hotels. Those that arrive early and go home last to help our cities and towns operate and run smoothly. Data shows that this hidden workforce is at higher risk of contracting coronavirus, are the lowest paid and are often in insecure jobs with minimum benefits. They don’t have access to an EAP, financial wellbeing advice, Mental Health First Aiders and rarely to mental health education. The hidden workforce is often living in multigeneration households, where social distancing from older relatives is impossible. The stresses on them over the last six months have been intense, while at the same time as their access to mental health services are reduced. Large businesses all employ or contract people that fit all the above demographics. I would like more organisations to extend their responsibility to supporting positive mental health beyond their “frontline" to this unseen workforce. On a human level, this is the right thing to do. It is also good for business reputation and investment opportunities, as mental health becomes a key tenet of ESG credibility. 

Business supporting communities

COVID-19 has also brought the mental health of the communities and society, which businesses exist within, to the forefront. We face a mental health crisis where not everyone is affected equally. Financial and health insecurity is very clearly widening. Around one in five people are struggling to pay bills and double are worried about their finances. 2,500 children have been admitted to hospital for malnutrition this year, which is double from the same period last year. This is a clear barometer of families struggling financially and, as a result, mentally. They need support.

Businesses are recognising the power they have, and the role that they can play. Early in the lockdown it became clear that local charities that provide support to the most vulnerable people were themselves at high risk due to lack of funding and capacity. In response, the CMHA collaborated with CEO’s of mental health charities and CMHA member businesses. We helped to establish the Mental Health Sustainability Fund, which is a lifeline for smaller, grassroots mental health charities at this time when they are needed the most. CMHA members were instrumental in getting this innovation off the ground, with Goldman Sachs providing the cornerstone funding, and commitments of volunteer support from Bupa, Deloitte, Linklaters and PwC. This is an inspiring example of innovative collaboration between private and charity sectors for social good, and it is a model which I believe will have a lasting impact.

An opportunity to reset, not just restart

COVID-19 is leading to so many models for businesses and workplaces being reshaped. We have an opportunity to reset how we do things for the better, rather than just hit restart. In planning the next phase, I am calling on businesses to be radical and unrelenting in our high expectations of ourselves, our communities and organisations. Be compassionate. Consider the whole picture. Mental health matters and must be included in every aspect of our planning if we are going to effectively build back better.