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Making the case for mental health initiatives at work

Many of us spend a significant proportion of our lives at work. Estimates vary but on average we’ll spend about 90,000 hours or a third of our lives at work. As a result, how we feel at work has a huge impact on our quality of life.  The good news is that it is becoming easier to make the business case for company initiatives that support employees with their mental health.

Mental health like physical health varies by individual and fluctuates over time. The most common mental health issues are stress, depression and anxiety (which can lead to behaviours such as alcohol and substance abuse and breakdown). We can look after our mental health by building resilience and taking care of our wellbeing.

Mental health charities estimate that one in four of us will experience mental health difficulties at some point in our lifetime. Although absence rates in general are going down, long-term sickness absence, due to mental ill health, is increasing. While there is a lot of poor mental health in the population, it is very often preventable, 70% of people with a mental health problem fully recover.

Poor mental health makes bad business sense 

A Department for Work and Pensions and Department for Health report, found that around 15% of those in work in England have symptoms of a mental health problem and around 300,000 people with a long-term mental health condition lose their jobs each year.

Research conducted by Deloitte calculates the cost of poor mental health to employers as between £33bn-£42bn (based on mental health related presenteeism, absenteeism and staff turnover). The average cost of poor mental health per employee is between £1,119-£1,481 per year, rising to between £2,017 and £2,564 in the finance, insurance and real estate sectors.

Nigel Carrington, from the University of the Arts London says in the report “Everyone is somewhere on the mental health spectrum, so this is a business productivity issue which should be dealt with alongside other health and safety considerations. Creating a positive environment for mental health demonstrably costs less than failing to do so.”


With 15% of employees disclosing a mental health problem facing disciplinary procedures, demotion or dismissal there is still a huge amount to do to challenge the stigma and discrimination associated with poor mental health at work.

It is estimated that over half of the cost of poor mental health is due to presenteeism. According to Rachel Suff, from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development “Presenteeism is particularly common in organisations where a culture of long working hours is the norm and where operational demands take precedence over employee wellbeing. Also, in periods of job insecurity, people may be more likely to go into work when they are ill, rather than take a day off sick, for fear their commitment to the job will be doubted.”

Return on investment

Focusing on the cost of poor mental health in the workplace should not overshadow the positive benefits: people living with mental health problems contribute an estimated £226 billion gross value added (12.1%) to UK GDP. According to The Mental Health Foundation this is nine times the estimated cost to economic output arising from mental health problems at work. What is more, being in work is good for mental health with 86% of research respondents reporting that it important in protecting their mental health.

It makes sense to keep people healthy and at work but despite the proof that it is beneficial, less than a quarter of line mangers receive mental health training. Deloitte conducted a literature review of 23 examples of good practice in workplace mental health interventions and concluded that the average return on investment is £4.20 for every £1 spent (with a range of between 40p and £9). A study published in the Lancet found that a mental health training programme for managers could lead to a significant reduction in work-related sickness absence, with an associated return on investment of £9.98 for each pound spent on training.

A report by The City Mental Health Alliance: Mental Health: inside our city workplaces found that the top two mental health initiatives rated by employees are presentations related to mental health, resilience, recovery or wellbeing together with personal stories shared by colleagues. Respondents highlighted the importance of an open culture where problems can be raised, and help sought along with the ability to seek help from team members, networks and senior staff when they face work pressures or mental health challenges.

Taking Action 

Regardless of the size or your business or the sector you operate in, there are many things that you can do to improve employee wellbeing and promote positive mental health, starting today:

  • Raise awareness and talk openly about mental health to encourage people to discuss difficulties and to ask for help when they need it
  • Include mental health in your business planning and nominate a champion or lead responsible for implementing and monitoring the plan
  • Invest in basic mental health literacy for all employees and specific training for managers
  • Promote good mental health with Resilience and Mindfulness training. Mindfulness based cognitive therapy which combines problem solving from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy with Mindfulness is recommended by the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as an effective treatment for recurrent depression
  • Invest in good people management practices
  • Recognise that people with poor mental health are more likely to have physical health issues
  • Monitor employee mental health wellbeing
  • Make a public commitment to improving mental health, by signing a pledge or charter.






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