Mental health-related illnesses are the biggest cause of absence from work in the UK. One in four people will experience a mental health condition, which can include depression, anxiety and stress.
The case for UK business (as a whole) to invest in the mental health of its workforce often focuses on the bottom-line and productivity costs of absence stemming from mental health issues. This is understandable, because in business these are the most immediately convincing arguments to make. And if that's the way that this conversation must win its place at the top table of UK business, then so be it.
So perhaps you may have read recently that nearly 16 million working days were lost last year due to mental illness (Office of National Statistics 2017). Or that the cost of under-performance relating to mental ill-health is thought to be something like £15 billion per annum to the UK (CIPD). These are just some of the statistics I read about during Mental Health Awareness Week.
But of course we must remember that what we're really talking about here is the health and happiness of individuals; people like you and me.
Work is important, but there is more to life than work and businesses have a part to play in their employees' health and happiness.
Businesses have to tread a fine line between looking after their people and making decisions about mental health that they're not qualified to make – such as deciding when an issue is serious and when it is not. They can easily fall into claims of discrimination if they try to be judge and jury in cases of mental ill-health, and in any case are better served fostering open environments that encourage feedback, open communication and opportunities for managers and staff to have regular catch ups in a private, protected environment.
Beyond that, there are things that individuals can do to help themselves and that HR can do to positively influence and encourage a culture that is geared to help employees be as healthy and as happy as possible.
Here are some simple, often inexpensive activities and attitudes that promote good mental and physical health in the workplace:
For employees, including managers:
Talk and listen
Don't suffer in silence. Speak to a manager or team leader if you're not happy, stressed, losing control or need help. Don't let it fester – speak out as soon as possible. Good employers are normally very supportive and far more resourceful when it comes to providing solutions than you might expect. If you have a project or workload-related issue, the sooner you tell your boss, the more likely they are to be able to help you.
Look after yourself and others
Look after yourself and look out for your team and peers. This is easier said than done: adopting a supportive mentality is something that can take time and a bit of learning and proactive planning. For instance, regular, informal team catch-ups can help, but need to be diarised, and adhered to. If the advice to "look after yourself" seems a bit glib, read on, because there are several things you can do to manage your own mental and physical wellbeing, and they are below!
Know yourself and others
A little self-knowledge can be a wonderful thing. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses and recognising your triggers – what makes you happy or angry or gets you down - and how to cope with this, can help you increase your chances of being happy at work. It can also help you to get on better with others, because it enables you to manage yourself better.
Emotional awareness training can be a very powerful thing, because it can help you to recognise your triggers, manage your way through emotional crises and manage how you communicate with others.
It can also lead to increased awareness of the qualities and atmosphere that you give off as an individual. Teams of socially-conscious people are more likely to support one another and reduce conflict which, of course, is stressful. It is also important to recognise that some people are more conflict-averse than others, and whilst healthy debate is a good thing, it is useful to recognise that what might be natural, bullish ebullience for some could be interpreted as aggression by others.
On the subject of self-knowledge, it is also very natural for people to want to make as much money as possible, without necessarily understanding whether this will make them happy. It can take time to learn who you are as a person, but it's definitely worth thinking (or talking to a career coach, peer, partner or friend) about your motivators, what makes you happy and what your priorities are within your working life. For example, it's well-known that flexible working is higher on the priority list for many millennials than it is to baby boomers.
Be honest with yourself and your colleagues about who you are and what you want from a job and your working environment. If you're not honest with your colleagues, you stand much less chance of enjoying your work.
If your whole team adopts this approach, you can learn their triggers, strengths and weaknesses and motivations too. That's a pretty empowering environment to work in.
Practice "Sound body, sound mind"
Exercise, sleep, good diet and hydration are fundamental to good physical and mental health. Exercise produces happy endorphins (the renowned "runners' high") that make you feel great, whilst helping you to forget your problems and get away from the stresses and challenges of modern living for a while. It can provide opportunities to meet new people and expand your horizons.
Hydration and good diet are overlooked as an essential component of good physical and mental health and productivity. Dehydration is often mistaken for hunger, leading to people overeating, when what their bodies really crave is water. It can cause fatigue, reduced attention span, headaches and high and low blood pressure.
Light, healthy lunches and regular (healthy) snacking on foods that release energy throughout the day are great ways to stay productive. Fruits and vegetables can help you to stay hydrated, being high in water.
Take time out
Take regular breaks where you get away from your desk - and take lunch breaks.
If you can, go outside at lunch, because it's important to spend time away from your screen. Switching from your word document or spreadsheet to the BBC website isn't really the kind of break your mind and body needs.
Take time away from your desk AND your emails. Naturally, it's much easier now for people to access their work email – for most of us our work emails are now only a single swipe or tap away at any time, and that "always-on" culture means few people get true down time any more.
That's why holidays, weekends, lunchbreaks and a bit of self-restraint are all-important.