The Spectre of Mental Health in the Workplace

Of all the spirits Scrooge had so far encountered, this was the one that caused terror to pour into his heart. He began, with trepidation, to follow the direction of the spirit’s outstretched arm. Slowly the fog cleared to reveal a large number of graves. On each was carved the name of a footsie 100 company.

Scrooge knew that he was in the presence of the spectre of mental health in the workplace.‘Surely it cannot be too late? What must I do?’

In time honoured tradition the spectre of the future could not, of course, reply. It could only point. Had it been able to speak it would have been a very interesting conversation.

As in the Dickens story the threat is largely comprised of chains of our own making, and as in A Christmas Carol, it is a warning that we must heed.


With one in four of us suffering from mental ill health and 11.7 million working days lost every year in the UK to stress and stress related illness, the time when we will no longer be able to turn back the clock is almost upon us.


So how can we, as modern employers, begin to address this problem? Perhaps the most important thing that needs to be done in every office, board room and shop floor in the land, is to start the conversation. Of course there is a good reason why this hasn’t been done in any significant way; why mental health has long been the elephant in the room. It is this: what if the people who are doing your jobs aren’t well enough to be doing your jobs? If the stats are right then this is almost certainly the case; at least not doing them under the conditions that they are doing them now. For far too long we haven’t wanted to know. The result of this is that we have stigmatised those who have been suffering, or at the very least allowed that stigma to continue. We have sensed the fragility of our working structure and the culture born from the industrial revolution, and understood that it could be the jenga piece that sends it all tumbling to the ground.

For decades the muted whelps of anguish have been ignored just as those of Cratchet and his team were ignored in the offices of Scrooge and Marley. So first we must establish a working culture where mental health can be talked about. We must create working environments where people don’t have to pretend to have the flu or an upset stomach or some other condition they believe will buy them a reasonable amount of understanding and support. We must quickly find out what questions need to be asked, and make sure that we ask them on a regular basis.

Secondly, and so that we can properly listen to the answers, we need to put in place a mental health team that are an effective and trustworthy first port of call for anyone that is beginning to struggle. And the key here is beginning to struggle. So often the early warning signs have been swept under the office carpet. Even well-intentioned managers have given a gesture of support assuming this to be a substitute for proper remedial action.

There must be a clear and practical process of reporting mental ill-health where both the staff member with the problem and the Wellbeing Officer feel confident that concerns will be listened to and addressed at the appropriate level up the chain. This will depend on managers understanding that tasks undertaken when the person was well may not have become more challenging, but simply impossible. You would not expect someone who has suddenly slipped a disc to carry on with their plans to run the marathon, and giving them an extra two days to complete a target may just result in two days extra of acute stress for someone already on the edge.

This is why the process has to be clear and it has to be embraced by the company as a whole. It cannot be the passing of tasks up the line to an already stretched manager, for that way resentment and another breakdown lies. And the last thing that the worker needs is guilt from knowing that a colleague will suffer undue pressure if they feel compelled to pick up the slack.


Companies are used to building in contingency for when their equipment breaks down, such risks are assessed and planned for. Surely it is the very least that we can do with regard to our staff.


Thirdly we must urgently implement quality training that gives our workforce a tool box of coping techniques. This needs to be largely preventative as opposed to remedial, with easy to access strategies to manage stress and build real deep-rooted resilience. Our working teams must learn to identify the moments of pressure when they need to put these techniques into use. And it must become part of our business culture that they are allowed and encouraged to do so.

Even those of the old-money mindset of Scrooge and Marley are having to accept that the benefits of this kind of training are huge, both for the workers and for the business. The recently published Thriving at Work report commissioned by the UK government calculates that the financial cost of poor mental health to British business is £42b per year, whilst the cost to the UK economy is a staggering £99b. This gigantic figure illustrates graphically the toll placed on hundreds of thousands of UK workers struggling to cope. On a more optimistic note, the report states that the return of investment in supporting mental health in the workplace yields a tenfold benefit to the organisation. It is surely a fully evidenced business case to implement change, equally as pressing as the ethical concerns.

The Tool Box won’t make all the chains dissolve, but it will go a long way, alongside the other methods already outlined, to make it a manageable problem. With quality training that teaches people to understand how and why the techniques are working, staff will gradually become re-engaged and re-motivated. The benefits to the individual able to manage moods and emotions are colossal, as they are to teams with improved and more effective working relationships. For the organisation the rewards, of course, are reduced absenteeism and reduced turnover of staff, which will have a significant positive impact on the bottom line. Perhaps these are the savings that can be invested, at least initially, in the programme of wholesale change.

Lastly, for those for whom the early support and training has not been enough to prevent a period off work, there needs to be, on their return, the provision of supported recovery; a time during which they are treated in the same way as they would be after a physical illness. A single period of absence due to mental ill-health does not mean that a cycle of re-occurrence is inevitable. In fact the likelihood of recurrence may well depend on the period of recovery. We, as employers, must understand that unlike a broken toe or a damaged back, recovery will not always be an arrow pointing in the same direction. There will be hills and troughs and only an open spirit of communication will tell us in which of these landscapes we are currently placed. It is understanding that we are conditioned to say ‘fine’ when asked how we are from a very early age. If someone says ‘fine’ with a plaster cast on their leg we are unlikely to wholly believe them. If someone says ‘fine’ when they are recovering from a period of mental ill health it is much more likely that this superficial answer will be taken with real or pretended acceptance. So back to the conversation.

To fully implement a strategy to improve the health and wellbeing of each and every employee will, in many organisations, mean top down changes, adapting structures, methodologies and working practice. To build in the appropriate contingency it may be necessary to wholly drop the focus that so many organisations have on the individual with the resulting culture of dependency and disappointment. Perhaps we need to see our workforce as a relay team, able to pick up the baton effortlessly almost before it is dropped. If we could remove the rigid demands of ‘I must carry on’ and the paralysing belief that ‘no-one else has the knowledge or the time to pick this up’, we may go a long way towards erasing the lines between the sick and the well, the them and the us. We could perhaps achieve this by instilling a truly supportive team culture and collective approach. It would certainly be interesting to see if the reduction in pressure would lead to a reduction of the illness and issues that make it so desperately needed.

It isn’t all doom and gloom. We’re aware of the spectre now and that means we’re in with a fighting chance. Companies of all shapes and sizes are starting to think about the best ways to move; a few already have progressive programmes in place. Let’s hit the reset before midnight and take this opportunity to re-write the future and reap the rewards of an honest and authentic workplace community.