Why mental illness affects everyone in your workplace, and what employers can do to help

Written by
Barbara Harvey

14 Feb 2020

14 Feb 2020 • by Barbara Harvey

Barbara Harvey, managing director of Accenture, shares research that signals a pressing need for more supportive networks in working environments.

A staggering 92% of all workers have been touched by mental health challenges – either their own, or those of a friend, family member, or co-worker. Workers under 30 are more likely to have had recent mental health challenges than their senior colleagues, and nearly half (48%) say they have experienced suicidal thoughts or feelings at some point in their lives. These were just some of the worrying insights from our research into more than 3,800 workers across two years. 

Despite having more experience of mental health challenges, we found that younger workers find it more difficult to talk about their own mental health than their senior colleagues. The problem is exacerbated when you consider that less than half (47%) of workers in our study were certain their organisation offered support or a programme around mental health. The other half were unclear or knew for certain such a programme did not exist. 

Groups feel siloed around mental health

Of course, there is no doubt businesses in the UK are increasingly aware of the need to address mental health among staff. The business case alone provides a compelling reason to act. But addressing the problem and designing programmes needs to involve the whole organisation to ensure you tailor them to the specific challenges of different groups. For example, nearly three-quarters of younger workers don’t feel that their senior colleagues understand the pressures they face in the workplace. 

What’s more, differences persist across minority communities: when we asked workers about experiences of suicide, a shocking 81% of the LGBT community said they knew someone who had taken or tried to take their own life and two in three (65%) had experienced suicidal thoughts and feelings themselves.

Identify vulnerable individuals

By understanding the nuances of mental health amongst individuals, companies will naturally start to create a more accommodating, open and supportive culture for everyone – one where employees feel safe to share their problems with colleagues or managers and where there is practical support and advice for those experiencing a challenge with their mental health. For younger workers this is especially important – in more open, supportive environments younger workers are 37% less likely to have experienced recent mental health challenges. Organisations must review how they support and enable employees of all ages, backgrounds and demographics to look after their mental health, get help and advice, and thus be at their best. 

Boots and Unilever: an inclusive approach to wellbeing

For example, the high street beauty, health and pharmacist, Boots, places significant emphasis on the wellbeing of colleagues as well as its customers through an holistic physical and mental health programme centred on the Five Ways to Wellbeing, which is based on the same framework regularly used by the NHS. It also works explicitly and intensely with its younger employees via its ‘early careers’ programme which addresses coping mechanisms and uses group discussion to shed light on skills and confidence techniques for work. 

Similarly, Unilever - with thousands of employees around the world - recognises that the workplace can be a pressured environment and has become a leading partner in the Inclusive Economy Partnership’s work on mental health. This looks to align business, society and the UK Government to drive corporate commitments and in turn support employee wellbeing by sharing best practice. To provide this, Unilever now ensures access to confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, using a unique approach where support is just ‘one click, one call or one chat’ away.

Why supportive cultures are key

Days such as Blue Monday highlight the issues surrounding mental health in the workplace, but workers’ health shouldn’t just be an issue we talk about once a year. Our research, which took the opinion and experience of just under 4,000 workers, conclusively found that employees in more supportive cultures were four times more likely to say that work positively impacted their mental health. We hope that awareness of this can lead to better working environments for all employees.