By destigmatising the harsh realities of mental stress, October’s World Mental Health Day broke taboos around discussing why many people take their own lives. It is part of a wider drive to reassure those under duress, firstly, that they are not alone and, secondly, that help is not far away, writes Jon Herbert.

People suffering from stress often find it difficult to talk about their problems or cope with the pressures they face, and often feel “defeated” or “trapped”. This can be a very early precursor to suicide. However, evidence shows that, with timely intervention, the spiral into suicidal thoughts can sometimes be prevented.

A supportive network at home and work can make a crucial difference as we move into dark nights and bad weather laced with social and political anxiety, made worse for many people by financial uncertainty, poverty, unemployment, traumatic events and inequality.

The figures on mental ill health

One-in-four people in the UK have, or will experience, mental health problems, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) says. Most are mild, short-term and can be treated by GPs. Public Health England (PHE) research shows that 83% of us have experienced early signs of poor mental health in the last 12 months.

Mental health is defined as how we think, feel and behave. Mental ill health can include anxiety, depression and difficulties in dealing with disturbing events such as bereavement. Work-related issues can aggravate pre-existing conditions.

Surprisingly — or possibly unsurprisingly — many people suffer mental distress regularly or at the same points in their lives.

These can be a natural response to life’s challenges but may become more serious without help. Around 27% of individuals wait for at least 6 months before taking positive steps to manage their mental health; 74% say they wished they had acted sooner. Sadly, 53% of people concerned about their mental health avoid social situations or contact with friends and family.

Poor mental health also costs business and industry between £33 billion and £42 billion a year, with an annual cost to the UK economy of between £74 billion and £99 billion. Some 300,000 people with long-term mental health problems lose their jobs each year.

The importance of work

But work is important. The mental health charity Mind says employment can be good for mental health as a source of income, for its a sense of reality, contact and friendships, a steady routine, plus opportunities to achieve and contribute.

The less positive side can be stress, poor relationships with co-workers, inappropriate work, feeling stigmatised, feeling unable to discuss problems, plus worries about returning to work after time off.

A key point here is that work-related stress and mental health problems often occur together and can share very similar symptoms. The main differences are severity, duration and impact on everyday life. Causes and treatment differ. People are affected in different ways.

The basics on supporting mental health at work

To look more deeply at the work/good mental health connection, the Government commissioned Lord Dennis Stevenson and Mind CEO, Paul Farmer, in 2017 to review the support that employers can provide in the workplace.

The result was Thriving at Work, published in 2017. This was supported by the practical advice in Mind’s How to Implement the Thriving at Work Mental Health Standards in Your Workplace, which defines a framework of six “core standards” that companies of all sizes can adopt. These were to:

  • produce, implement and communicate a mental health at work plan

  • promote mental health awareness at work

  • encourage open conversations and offer support and workplace adjustments where required

  • ensure good working conditions, opportunities for development and a healthy work-life balance

  • train line managers in effective management practices and communication

  • monitor employee mental health and wellbeing.

In October 2019, Public Health England (PHE) and the NHS launched a new platform to help people look after their own mental health and wellbeing, as well as to support that of others. Every Mind Matters outlines simple steps to better prepare for life’s ups and downs and even suggests apps that can be downloaded to help with different aspects of mental and physical wellbeing.

Croner-i’s Mental Health Toolkit is a useful step-by-step guide to reviewing your mental health policies.

The HSE makes the point that even if time needs to be taken off work, most people recover and return to employment. However, in many cases they return before feeling 100% ready for “business as usual”. This is a key area where employers can help in planning a gradual easing in, with support and some responsibility changes.

If they do identify a member of staff who is struggling with their mental health, line managers should focus on making reasonable workplace adjustments rather than understanding the diagnosis, says the HSE.

Also, employees off sick with no contact from their manager can feel isolated and forgotten, which makes it much harder to return to work. The advice is to keep them in the loop work-wise and socially throughout their absence, while remembering that people in a crisis may not be able to think clearly or take in complex information.

Suicide prevention: WAIT

Some 800,000 people take their own lives each year and many more attempt to, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Which is why a key message from 2019’s World Mental Health Day was for anyone coming into contact with a possibly suicidal person is to “WAIT”.

  • Watch for signs of distress and uncharacteristic behaviour. 

  • Ask “are you having suicidal thoughts?” 

  • It will pass: emphasise that suicidal feelings will recede with time.

  • Talk to others — encourage the person to seek help from a GP, counsellor or health professional.

Health Assured

To provide your employees with access to a confidential telephone counselling service where they can get help with any problem they may be experiencing, including mental health and wellbeing issues, contact Health Assured, the UK’s leading employee assistance programme and wellbeing services provider on 0844 891 0350.

Last reviewed 26 November 2019