Tuesday 10 October is World Mental Health Day. There are of course very (too?) many days and weeks through the year assigned to particular causes, but this really is one that should not get lost in the general noise. One day, each year, when the world comes together to focus on mental health. This year the theme is mental health in the workplace which makes it all the more worth focussing upon.
Our mental health, good or bad, is influenced by any number of different factors but work is one that is right up there - whether because of the purpose, connection, learning and more that it can contribute positively to our wellbeing, or because of the damage it can do through excessive stress, poor relationships, poor line management, disengagement and more. For those whose difficulties might stem (in part at least) from other influences, work can provide a place in which to be safe and also, perhaps, to discuss what is happening elsewhere in our lives. And of course we spend so much of our time at work, whether in our workplace itself or through our 24/7 connectivity.
I have no statistics to back this up (when did that ever hold me back?) but it seems to me likely that, in office environments at least, mental illness is the biggest health and safety issue. What we do know is that mental illness costs about 4.5% of annual GDP in the UK, well over £1,000 per year per employee. That is about illness and its cost. Looked at the other way round, we mostly use our brains in our workplaces, so positive mental health must surely be the most important factor in driving performance.
Happily there is a lot of noise about mental health. Long may that continue. We have done well to get the issue out there. That is, however, only the very start of the journey. People know now there is a conversation to be had. Hopefully they know how important it is. The next stage is to give everyone, at every level in organisations, the knowledge, language and permission to have that conversation and to keep it going. It breaks the stigma around mental health and illness and it also allows people to think about and discuss the issue. That would be a good place to reach and many organisations are still a long way from there. (The highlighted report from Business in the Community contains frightening evidence of just how far, as well as recommendations for best practice.)
Even then, however, talking needs to move into doing. Yes giving people information, and support when they are in distress, helps them manage their own wellbeing, but increasingly the focus needs to be on the changes we need to make to create healthy work places and practices. Too many are toxic to our mental health. That is not right, and is not sustainable. We do not build our offices out of asbestos. We should not build our working practices out of stress, or all the other work based contributors to poor mental health.
Employers need to have a meaningful strategy in place around mental health which goes way beyond supporting those in crisis and which asks, and addresses, the difficult questions, that is really committed to promoting a healthy culture. There are so many different things for organisations to worry about, too many almost certainly, that go towards driving sustainable performance. You cannot achieve anything with people who are not well so at the top of the list of priorities should be the wellbeing of those in the organisation - the rest of the projects and priorities depend on it.
Mark this 10 October by a commitment that when we are here again next year, we can say we have made a difference.