Today sees the start of the UK’s 2019 mental health awareness week. Many employers will use this as an opportunity to launch new workplace wellbeing schemes or to remind employees of the support they already provide, and to encourage staff to talk openly about their mental health. But do these initiatives actually make a difference?

Recognition of and action on the impact of mental ill health in the workplace has, without doubt, progressed in recent years. However, statistics suggest that stress at work remains a growing problem. According to the TUC, in 2017/18 in the UK 15.4 million working days were lost to stress, depression or anxiety, accounting for 57% of all absences. Meanwhile, the Stevenson/Farmer Thriving at Work Review reported that poor mental health costs UK employers between £33 billion and £42 billion a year.

As well as the financial costs, the adverse business impacts of mental ill-health include employee absence, staff turnover, loss of skills, and legal and reputational risks. All of this makes it an issue worth tackling.

An important aspect of any employer’s strategy will be a positive approach to promote and maintain good employee mental health and to prevent problems arising. Many businesses now use workplace wellbeing programmes, spearheaded by those at the top of the organisation, to ensure openness and transparency around mental health, to provide training and assistance for managers, and to provide tools for both prevention and intervention for use by the business. These initiatives are overwhelmingly successful and, according to Thriving at Work, the return on investment of workplace mental health interventions is “overwhelmingly positive”. The average return per £1 spent is reported to be £ 4.20 – with a range of between £0.40 and £9.

At the same time as using a proactive approach aimed at support and prevention, it is important for employers to ensure that the organisation’s culture does not shift so far that managers feel unable to deal with situations where mental ill-health is at play. Numerous tricky scenarios can arise including extended periods of absence, poor performance, requests for reasonable adjustments, and allegations of bullying and harassment. Provided it is equipped with robust policies and procedures and well trained management staff, a business should not be afraid to tackle these scenarios head on.

Our recommendation is that, in addition to other activities planned for Mental Health Awareness Week 2019, businesses which have not addressed workplace mental health (either recently or at all), should use this as the impetus to review and audit their strategy to ensure that it is meeting business needs.