While much work has been done to remove the stigma surrounding mental health across our wider society, in the workplace effort still needs to be made to address the issue head on.
The latest research from Bupa reveals that mental health has become a boardroom priority for 63% of businesses providing professional services such as marketing, with some 28% of those surveyed saying mental health is now a bigger issue among their employees than physical illness.
Clinical director for mental health at Bupa UK, Dr Pablo Vandenabeele, recognises that marketers, in particular, are under pressure to perform in an environment defined by deadlines, tight budgets and calculated risks.
“Marketing is very much a knowledge-based industry, so therefore it isn’t good enough to make sure that physically you are fit and well, it is crucial that your mental wellbeing is preserved,” he explains.
“Marketers need to maintain their concentration and work towards tight deadlines, which can all be very stressful. And, of course, we know that stress can be a big precipitant for mental ill health. Equally it is crucial from a mental health perspective that they’re functioning at their best to ensure they can do the job.”
You don’t want to have the first conversation about mental health with an employee when they are already starting to struggle. – Dr Pablo Vandenabeele, Bupa
Vandenabeele highlights the problem for marketers who come into the industry as bright graduates who have excelled throughout their education, but often lack what he calls “the skill of failure”.
“It’s the skill of dealing with setbacks. When you are confronted with them early in your professional life, in an environment where there’s a lot of pressure and where you know there’s a lot of competition for your job, then that can be very traumatic,” he explains.
It therefore falls to a leader within the marketing team to model a positive and open attitude towards mental health, a message that should be sent out to employees from day one, argues Vandenabeele.
“You don’t want to have the first conversation about mental health with an employee when they are already starting to struggle,” he advises.
“You need to make sure you send out a message early that you recognise the value of mental wellbeing when people are actually doing well, so that when a time arises when they are struggling they will find it a lot easier to approach their manager.”
Taking a preventative approach could be crucial as the Bupa research shows 41% of UK businesses have seen an increase in episodes of mental health issues among their employees compared to five years ago. A big factor is absenteeism. Bupa figures show that 743,000 of UK employees have taken a long-term absence over the past 12 months due to mental ill health.
Vandenabeele identifies absenteeism as a big problem for any company, particularly smaller businesses which might struggle to cope if a member of the team takes a considerable amount of time off.
Another associated problem is presenteeism, whereby employees come to work despite suffering from mental health problems for a variety of reasons, including the pressure of the workplace culture or fear they will lose their job or appear ‘weak’ if they talk about their problems.
Change from the top
A Government review from October 2017 suggests that poor mental health costs employers between £33bn and £42bn a year. Marketers could, however, lead the charge in pushing mental health up the boardroom agenda from both a cost and culture perspective, says Vandenabeele.
“Marketers understand culture and getting messages across to people, so in that respect I think they’re in an excellent position to lead on it,” he states.
“It is very important for any organisation to have a mental wellbeing strategy in place. It’s not good enough to have a strategy in place that looks at what will happen once people start suffering from mental health problems. I think you need to go one step before that and have a strategy in place about what we can do to keep our employees well in the workplace.”
This ambition could be crucial going forward given that 52% of employers surveyed by Bupa say they do not know how best to support employees with mental health issues. Some 42% also admit that awareness and understanding of mental health is ‘quite low’ across their organisation.
While it is difficult for a line manager with many direct reports to get to know everything about their employees, Vandenabeele argues it is crucial for marketers to understand where their teams sit on the ‘stress resilience curve’.
It’s crucial for companies to put mental health strategies in place, because it will affect their reputation if they don’t. – Dr Pablo Vandenabeele, Bupa
While research finds a small amount of pressure can increase productivity, everyone has a breaking point and it is important to understand where employees sit on this continuum.
Vandenabeele advises brands to set holistic KPIs that take into account how the work has been achieved not just the outcome, as well as creating a culture where employees feel like they can open up about the stress affecting both their working and personal lives.
Furthermore, in this age of transparency it is a risk for any company hoping to attract new talent to neglect their employees’ mental health. Whereas 20 years ago people believed that mental health issues were something that “happened to someone else”, Vandenabeele argues that today we are more willing to accept we might be affected at some point in our lives.
“From an employees’ perspective I think people are far more likely to question ‘what will happen if I become mentally unwell?’ than they would have been 20 years ago,” he adds.
“And, of course, it’s a lot easier now to gain access to that information through various websites [such as Glassdoor]. Generally speaking people put an awful lot more value on ethical employers than they would have done in the past. So I think it’s crucial for companies to put mental health strategies in place, because it will affect their reputation if they don’t.”