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Taking an open-minded approach to mental health

4 June 2013
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Forster recently helped Business in the Community’s Workwell programme to launch its first ever FTSE 100 benchmark results. This gave an insight to how some of the world’s leading companies manage the health and wellbeing of their people. There was one particular set of findings that was most compelling – only 6% of the FTSE 100 companies had publicly available information on their employee assistance programmes (EAPs), in contrast to other research which in fact found that at least 85% of UK companies have EAPs in place. Seeing as EAPs exist to help employees deal with problems affecting their work, including any mental health issues, this figure becomes more surprising.  Why are businesses reluctant to admit that they offer this kind of support?

Perhaps one of the reasons is that they don’t want to ‘admit’ that their employees suffer from mental health problems in the first place. After all, wouldn’t this reflect badly on the company and its working practices? In fact, the reality is quite different. Evidence is increasingly showing that, for the overwhelming majority of the working population, the main causes of conditions such as stress and anxiety can be rooted to problems outside of the office.

Work and home life are becoming increasingly intertwined. 50 years ago, you could leave for work in the morning knowing that it would offer distance from any difficulties at home. Nowadays, it isn’t this straightforward. Smartphones, emails and the internet mean that all the drama of home life is available at your fingertips. And of course, this works the other way around, too. How many of us are prone to checking emails over dinner or before bed? In the digital age, we’re arguably finding it harder to order our thoughts and to be more self-disciplined with how we spend our time. There’s always something on our minds.

Because technology is changing how we think, it seems logical that mental health patterns will change as well. Logic would suggest that we will see a rise in conditions triggered by obsessing over certain things and trying to do too much at once.

Statistics from the Mental Health Foundation are pretty compelling. One in four people will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year, with depression affecting one in five older people. The most common psychological disorder in Britain today is mixed anxiety and depression.

But perhaps an even bigger problem is people’s tendency to underestimate how serious these conditions can be. They’re often over-used terms after all: people regularly talk about being stressed and bandy the term around as an insult. Overriding impressions of mental health problems suffer from stereotypes: a ‘mental’ person is someone crazy, mad or deranged. People don’t immediately make the connection between more common conditions because they’re hard to see. As a result, their validity is often questioned: is feeling overly-stressed a sign of psychological imbalance, or is it a natural symptom of living in a world in which we are all busier, more rushed and harder working than ever before?

One thing’s clear: our understanding of mental health is changing rapidly, but society’s perception of it isn’t. The longer that this continues, the bigger the problem will grow – untreated conditions often lead to more complex problems that can have a devastating effect on our health.

And this is where Workwell comes in again, because business has a big part to play in driving this change. Companies and organisations need to start talking transparently about mental health to break down barriers not only in the workplace, but also in society too. People need to realise how to recognise symptoms of more common disorders, and understand that it is crucial to treat these seriously and with importance. At the moment, society and business isn’t doing enough. We need an open minded approach to mental health to make this happen.