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26 September 2018 | By Joe Marshall Feature

Waking up to the health and wellbeing challenge

At the launch of the CBI's Front of Mind report, discussions focused on mental health - and how firms can tackle it

The UK is waking up to the health and wellbeing challenge. With more people taking time off with poor physical and mental health, employers who have already taken action have begun to see the rewards. After all a fitter, happier workforce on one side delivers a boost to productivity on the other. But it’s a complex topic – and firms are looking to their peers to get a clearer idea of what works.

Business representatives got together at the London headquarters of the Post Office for the launch of the CBI’s new guide to help firms prioritise workplace health & wellbeing – Front of Mind. They discussed the challenges and steps towards more health-conscious workplaces.

Sarah Newton MP, Minister of State for Disabled People, Health and Work, spoke on the importance of addressing mental health in the workplace – a topic she wrote on for in a recent article for Business Voice.

A mental health issue

We have a particular problem with mental health in the construction industry,” said Gregor Craig, President & Chief Executive of Skanska UK. “You can imagine the amount of time and energy we put into safety and one of our key focusses is people falling from height – it’s an industry on its own.

“Then think of the fact that in the construction industry, you are six times more likely to be killed by suicide than from a fall. And until very recently we put zero effort into preventing suicide. That’s where we’re coming from.”

In fact, a recent Construction News survey showed that one in four people in the industry had considered suicide. The problem is a serious one.

“The challenge we face with tackling issues of mental health is how to spot where to target your effort,” added Craig. “When someone injures themselves in your workplace you know about it. When someone is suffering with a mental health issue – someone you could help, and you want to help – how do you know where to start?”

Leading by example

Dr Gill MacLeod, CEO, Roodlane Medical and Executive Director of Primary Care, HCA Healthcare UK, specialises in corporate healthcare. She has seen a huge shift in focus on mental health issues in the last 15-20 years. “It was obvious to me when I first started working in the business environment that mental health was the key factor in people’s ability to be at work. And it wasn’t being addressed,” she said.

But, she added, she has seen a revolution in the businesses she’s engaged with. Firms have been educating their workforces and dedicating roles to wellbeing. She’s also seen more engagement from senior business leaders willing to speak about their own experiences.

“That last point is very empowering,” she explained. “Because if you feel that admitting any difficulty equates to failure or marginalisation, you won’t do it. When you see a business leader admit to it then you’re much more likely to accept it.”

Empowering intervention

“It’s about getting the basics right,” said Richard Washington, Director of Product and Proposition at BUPA. “It starts with culture. Opening those conversations in the workplace is a massive first step. The second step with mental health is how to spot it.”

At BUPA, the executive team have taken an awareness course with Mental Health First Aid – an organisation that provides training in how to spot, address and even prevent mental health issues.

“That opened some big conversations among us. It also set the bar as to how seriously we take it. And we’re now rolling out Mental Health First Aid to all our senior managers.”

As for intervention, Washington urged all businesses to examine the quality of their employee assistance programmes. Ensuring they have the right system in place, with a particular focus on mental health, is vital.

“Are you getting that speed of access to the right sort of councillor, or a mental health nurse to get that early intervention that is so important?”

Putting in programmes that raise awareness and empower employees to manage their own wellbeing is another essential step.

“You need to sensitise the organisation repeatedly to mental health issues, so people are talking about it and understand it. You need to upskill people to have those conversations that take courage and bravery to begin. And when you have those conversations are you asking the right questions? Do you really care about the outcome?”

Innovative action

At BAE Systems, Managing Director for Shared Services Steve Fogg has launched an awareness programme with a difference.

“We wanted an awareness programme that brings the human touch, as opposed to a mechanical, corporate process, to inspire people to become human beings in the workplace and open their minds up to support their colleagues and friends.”

The programme involves a business psychologist talking about mental health from a factual and clinical point of view. But an external organisation then adds a theatre to the discussions by telling a story about a worker with mental health issues.

“As the story developed we engaged with the audience,” said Fogg. “We hit the pause button and said, ‘what would you do next?’ and slowly but surely, the activity level lifted in the audience, and people started offering advice and interacting with the subject.”

The feedback Fogg received after running the programme for one section of the business was overwhelming. And he decided to run the programme for every employee.

“People talk about mental health and they say, ‘we need to train the leadership’. Actually, we need to touch as many people as possible.”

The statistics speak for themselves. 1 in 3 working-age people have a long-term health condition. 5 million workers experience poor mental health every year. ‘Presenteeism’ in UK business has tripled in the last 8 years. Long-term health conditions among people of working-age are estimated to cost the economy £100bn, while health-related absence costs SMEs £782 per person per year.

The CBI is recommending three important steps to improving health and wellbeing in the workplace:

  1. Making health & wellbeing a leadership priority
  2. Targeting action on intervening early
  3. Building an organisational structure that encourages health & wellbeing

Read more in Front of Mind.

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