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Employees' mental health is a director-level problem

A recent government report has highlighted the human and financial cost of poor mental health at work

In January, Prime Minister Theresa May commissioned an independent review into how employers can support the mental health of their employees, and what they can do to help individuals remain and thrive in work.

The final Thriving at Work report was recently released by the government, finding that as well as there being a human cost, there is also a financial one, with employers losing billions of pounds through employees being less productive, less effective, or off sick due to poor mental health.

Employers and managers have a duty of care to the staff they work with, particularly due to The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, which requires employers to take reasonable steps to look after employees’ mental health and welfare, and all senior members of staff should be looking at how they can help support their team’s mental health.

Nearly two-thirds of people say that they have experienced a mental health problem and this can affect them at work. The report found that 300,000 people with a long term mental health problem lose their jobs each year.

The Association of Accounting Technicians recently surveyed professionals who work in accounting and finance, to find out about their experiences of working with poor mental health. Nearly half (43%) said that they have suffered from stress because of work, showing that the finance sector is not immune.

What can be done?

The Thriving at Work report recommends several mental health core standards be adopted by all employers regardless of workplace type, industry or size, to help achieve its vision of reducing the number of people leaving work with mental health problems:

1. Produce, implement and communicate a mental health at work plan

A study from the Institute of Directors found that only 14% of their members have a formal mental health policy in place. It is important for organisations to have a policy or plan in place so that all employees know exactly what the procedure is if an individual is having problems, and all staff know how to deal with it and what support can be given.

This could include having employee counselling services available for staff who might need it, and having grievance and disciplinary procedures to enable issues from any staff member to be heard and acted upon. It could also include plans on how to improve and protect employees’ mental health before any problems occur.

2. Develop mental health awareness among employees

Developing awareness can help by making all employees aware of the issues around mental health. This will help team members spot the signs in themselves or in their colleagues that they may be suffering from poor mental health and recognise when they may need to ask for support.

This could be done by managers sharing information from organisations which specialise in mental health education, such as government bodies and voluntary organisations and charities.

3. Encourage open conversations about mental health and the support available when employees are struggling

Encouraging conversations around the subject is a positive step which will create a culture of understanding, and help team members feel less uncomfortable if they do start suffering from poor mental health and need to seek support from the organisation. An obvious starting place would be to use regular one to one meetings to ask employees about any stress they may be feeling.

4. Provide employees with good working conditions and ensure they have a healthy work life balance and opportunities for development

Providing good working conditions and ensuring employees have a healthy work life balance is a key way to help minimise the chance of employees beginning to suffer from poor mental health because of work. Things at work which could affect employees’ mental health include having a heavy workload or targets, or conversely, a workload and targets that are too light; employees need to feel like their tasks are achievable but also important.

Having long working hours, or being involved in interpersonal conflicts with others, including bullying and harassment, could also contribute to poor mental health, as could staff having ineffective equipment or tools to do their jobs. Giving employees opportunities for development will help by showing employees that they are making progress and will be able to grow in the organisation.

5. Promote effective people management through line managers and supervisors

It’s important that managers and senior members of staff are informed on how to respond and give support if team members come to them with stress or are having struggles with mental health issues. Management training can be given to help equip the skills that are needed.

This is where a good mental health work plan will also come in handy, providing clear guidelines for senior members of staff to follow.

6. Routinely monitor employee mental health and wellbeing

Monitoring employee mental health is important to be able to see whether any employees may be suffering any problems which need to be dealt with. Monitoring can be done in different ways, for example by carrying out workplace stress audits. A stress audit involves asking staff to answer questions, usually anonymously, about their role and the organisation. This can be done digitally through a survey or questionnaire. The Health and Safety Executive offers tools to help organisations who wish to carry out checks on their employees’ mental wellbeing.

Spotting the signs

For someone who is struggling with mental health issues, it may be hard to talk to anyone about it, especially at work. Nine out of ten people with mental health problems experience stigma and discrimination, so many people find it a tough subject to broach, especially if it’s to a manager or supervisor.

Therefore, it is important that managers are familiar with the signs that an employee might be having problems. Signs of this could include that an employee is less able to concentrate or less productive than usual, taking more time off work than usual, or behaving in a way that is different from how they usually behave.

AAT found that only a quarter of accounting professionals (25%) would feel most comfortable talking to their line manager if they were feeling stressed, so it is very important that managers are able to spot the signs of someone in their team who might be struggling.

Along with insurance and real estate, the report found that finance has one of the highest costs per employee from mental illness, with the average cost being between £2,017 and £2,564, compared to the total average for all industries which was between £1,119 and £1,481. This means that it is in the interest of managers working in the finance profession to take steps to ensure that their organisations are doing all they can to help ensure good mental health among employees.

The report also found that the average return on invest on workplace mental health is positive, with £4.20 returned per £1 spent, demonstrating how it can be beneficial to ensure that your employees’ mental health is being looked after.


Rob Alder is Head of Business Development at the AAT (Association of Accounting Technicians).

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