Misconceptions about the productivity impacts of mental health problems are holding staff back from using work-based support services, according to recruiter Morgan McKinley’s 2019 Barometer of Workplace Mental Health in the UK. 
On the positive side, almost three quarters (73%) of 1,100 respondents from various levels of seniority believe it is good to talk about mental health at work. But more than a third (39%) said that their employers don’t provide any formal mental health support. A further 34% are unaware whether any support is available from their organisations.
Across sectors, 35% of financial services respondents said that their employers do offer formal support – followed by 27% of professional services staff and 25% in the commerce and industry bracket. However, 66% of professional services staff, 74% in financial Services and 80% in commerce and Industry who have formal workplace support programmes on hand do not make use of them.
The figures suggest that more needs to be done to understand why those employees, who acknowledge that they have issues, are not utilising the available support. But one, major clue arrived in the findings: only 2% of respondents believe that productivity at work is unaffected when an individual is struggling with their mental health.
Indeed, answers to multiple-choice questions revealed an inclination towards the belief that an individual who is struggling with mental health issues only works at 41-60% capacity: a sentiment relatively consistent across the financial services, professional services and commerce and industry segments.
Morgan McKinley people director Andrea Webb said: “There’s a historical stigma that having a mental health issue is considered a ‘weakness’.” She added: “Despite raised awareness in recent years, many employers still aren’t doing enough to provide their workforces with mental health help.
“Having programmes in place is not only a useful attraction and retention tool that can help create a happy and positive office culture, but also it ultimately contributes to a more productive workforce as people get the support they need. The fundamental foundations are in place at many organisations, but more needs to be done to improve confidence around the discussion of mental health issues at work so that individuals can get the help they require.”
Which steps can any boss eager to be a good leader take to boost that confidence?
The Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “The interesting thing that comes through from these findings is the assumption that somehow, if you don’t have a mental health problem, you’re automatically productive and operating at 100% efficiency. But where’s the evidence for that? The point is, it’s difficult to measure so many different aspects of performance in the context of mental heath’s sliding scale. They tend to be the most human aspects of performance: the elements that are at the bottom of the to-do list for AI developers, who are focusing mainly on rote processes.”
Cooper points out: “People with persistent back pain, for example, or irritable bowel syndrome – in fact, a whole range of physical health problems – will find that those issues impact upon their effectiveness. Productivity figures for the UK suggest that a lot of people who consider themselves generally healthy are not delivering as much as they could. And even though we may be working really hard and think we’re doing a great job, we also have to ask ourselves whether we’re truly adding value to our organisations.
“It’s important to challenge what we’re measuring, and why we’re measuring it. We don’t need to measure everything. But if we have a baseline of what we consider to be good performance, then everybody could be judged against it. Not just those people who are assumed – and it must be an assumption – that they’re somehow falling short.”
For example, Cooper notes: “We at the Institute work with a printing company that was founded, and is currently staffed, by people who have mental health issues. The myths that cropped up in certain quarters of the printing industry’s customer base about how materials would get lost at this company, or that staff would be more prone to making mistakes, have proven completely unfounded. We use them, and they provide a fantastic service. So, as we can see, it’s a matter of having a conversation that includes everyone, rather than focusing exclusively on those with mental health problems.”
She adds: “There are two, key steps that organisations can take to reduce the stigma associated with mental health. First of all, they must play an active role in all the various campaigns that are striving to make it okay to talk about these difficulties, such as Time to Change and Mental Health at Work. And secondly, they must ensure that there are high levels of trust and confidentiality in the workplace, so that staff are satisfied that their worries won’t become the subject of potentially harmful gossip. With that protection in place, workers will be more willing to take advantage of any support mechanisms that their organisations provide.”
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