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Chris O'Sullivan: Time to look to the positive whilst addressing the challenges that remain

Monday 28 November 2016

Chris O'Sullivan discusses mental health at work

Chris O'Sullivan Chris O'Sullivan

Chris O'Sullivan, Head of Business Development and Engagement 

Chris O'Sullivan leads on workplace mental health for the Mental Health Foundation. His role combines policy, research and development activities on workplace mental health with corporate partnerships and development of the Foundation's consultancy and training programmes. 

Time to Look to the Positive Whilst Addressing the Challenges that Remain

It has been a privilege to hear from Acas and the University of Essex on their new researchpdf icon The Management of Mental Health at Work [601kb], and to discuss this in the light of the findings of our own research study Added Value: Mental Health as a Business Asset, completed with Unum and Oxford Economics. These studies, combined with several other excellent contributions published in the last few months underline the critical importance of addressing mental health at work, and suggest ways in which we may refresh our approach to the topic moving forward.

We commissioned an economic analysis of the contribution to UK GDP of people living and working with mental health problems. Using the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey and Labour Force Survey data, we estimated both the value-added to GDP of this workforce, as well as the costs associated more widely with dealing with mental health problems.

The analysis concludes that the gross value added to the UK economy by people with mental health problems is around £226 billion - that is 12.1% of the total GDP. This is nine times more than the cost of mental health problems to economic output - an estimated £25 billion in foregone gross value added to the UK economy because of the cost of mental health problems to individuals and to business.

Costs are predicted to rise in the coming years - mental ill health is the most pressing health concern in the world - but we believe that one way to address cost is to protect and improve the mental health of those people in work.

In addition to the economic analysis we undertook depth interviews with HR managers, line managers, and people working with mental health problems, and commissioned YouGov to survey over 1300 people with lived experience and 1099 line managers (around half of whom had also the unique insight of living with mental health problems).

86% of survey respondents said that work was important of very important to protecting and maintaining their mental health - a conclusion borne out by the qualitative analysis. Those with lived experience were the most likely to regard work as very important to their mental health.

We were very keen to ascertain the extent of distress at work, and to understand the interdependent challenges of addressing discrimination and promoting disclosure. It was here that our study underlined the challenge we still face in recognising and engaging with 'below the waterline' distress. Around half of respondents with lived experience had chosen to disclose in the past five years and just half reported this as a positive experience feeling supported and less likely to be exposed to direct discrimination. It was fear of discrimination that stood in the way of disclosure for many, a sense of shame, and poor experiences of disclosing in the past.

It's clear that many go to work feeling 'stressed, overwhelmed or had trouble coping'. Amongst those with lived experience, 88% of respondents said they'd been through times when they'd had trouble coping, and 49% reported having come to work whilst experiencing suicidal feelings. This is a shocking figure, especially given that only half of people disclose. Of equal significance though is the fact that amongst the 624 managers who had not had any lived experience of mental ill health, 39% said they had been through times when they had had trouble coping and 5% - 1 in 20, reported coming to work whilst experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings. This underpins the central tenet of our call to action - that mental health at work is a something that requires a whole organisation approach that balances support for those with mental health problems with measures to protect and improve the mental health of all staff.

The Acas research rightly points to the risks inherent in the 'anxious organisation' - an environment characterised by repeated and poorly managed where risk of psychological injury and distress is high. We welcome the opportunity to join with stakeholders to create a proposition for employers and policy makers that frames mental health in a positive light but equally addresses the risks to mental health associated with the modern workplace. We need to move us all to a position in which people with and without mental health conditions can perform at their best, and enjoy the benefits that rewarding work can bring.

The Mental Health Foundation is a national charity focusing on prevention in mental health. The workplace is a key setting for reaching adults of working age, and protecting and improving mental health, and is an area in which the Foundation has worked nationally and internationally for over a decade.


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