Today is World Mental Health Day, an appropriate time for employers to reflect on how this issue impacts the workplace and consider measures they can adopt to promote mental health and support their employees.

On 10 October each year, World Mental Health Day aims to raise awareness and mobilise efforts to support mental health across the globe. In England and Wales, according to recent NHS surveys, as many as one in four people experience mental health problems and one in eight adults receive mental health treatment each year.

It is clear that poor mental health is something that affects many people, and often these effects are hidden. Despite a large proportion of society suffering with issues of this kind, there remains a lack of understanding about mental health and misconceptions persist. Inevitably, this also affects the workplace and is something that all employers need to be able to deal with effectively.

In September, Prince William teamed up with the mental health charity Mind to launch the website Mental Health at Work, which aims to give employees the opportunity to discuss the challenges faced in work by those with mental health issues. The comments on the site show a consistent pattern, in that employees often feel their employer misunderstands their condition, making them scared to be open when help is needed.

With mental health-related costs of up to £42 billion each year caused by lost production, absence and recruitment costs, addressing mental health at work is something that employers cannot afford to ignore. While the causes of mental health problems are often beyond an employer’s control, there are practical steps that can be taken in the workplace to promote good mental health and support employees.

It is worth noting that people who are suffering or have suffered from mental health problems have added to the economy by as much as £225 billion per year, representing some 12.1% of the UK's total GDP. Employees with mental health problems are valuable members of the workforce, but the right support can improve their productivity even further.

There is evidence that employees with mental health issues who are supported by their employer are more likely to be able both to stay in work and return to work after a period of absence - and this in turn reduces long-term absence. Indeed, in one survey undertaken by Unum, 86% of the participants believed that their job, and being at work, was important to protecting and maintaining their mental health.

Employers should seek to be proactive and preventative in this area, as opposed to simply reacting to problems when they arise. Some practical steps an employer can take to improve mental health in the workplace include:

  • Creating a mental health policy which sets out the company’s values and approach towards supporting employees. This may include implementing an employee assistance or wellness programme and confidential counselling. The number of mental health enquiries made to employee assistance programmes by UK employees increased by 31% from last year, clearly demonstrating their value.
  • Implementing initiatives designed to promote employee wellbeing. These may include relatively simple steps such as incentivising staff to eat lunch away from their desk, or offering on site yoga classes and mindfulness sessions.
  • Ensuring that senior managers champion awareness of mental health, and have regular one-to-one meeting with employees to identify problems and offer support. Employers should be mindful that managers are not mental health experts, and so should be given training to understand sufficiently how to support employees who ask for help. Acas has recently published some useful guidance on mental health in the workplace, which includes practical information for managers on managing staff experiencing mental ill health.

Promoting an open and positive workplace environment with regard to mental health can help employees to feel supported and, in turn, value their employer. While World Mental Health Day is a good time to focus on this topic, it is important to remember that mental health is a year-round issue for all of us.