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'If You Take A Sabbatical For Two Years, How Is That Different From Someone Who’s Off For Mental Health Reasons For Six Months? Or A Year For Maternity Leave?'

'If You Take A Sabbatical For Two Years, How Is That Different From Someone Who’s Off For Mental Health Reasons For Six Months? Or A Year For Maternity Leave?'

As team we pride ourselves on proactively identifying forthcoming trends and issues for our clients. But recently we turned the tables and asked our network of HR professionals to guide us on what they saw coming down the track as the critical issues facing their organisations, and how they could ensure they were able to attract and retain a future-ready workforce.

Few topics under discussion at our sessions elicited such a strong emotional response as mental health; research suggests that one in four people in the UK will suffer from a common mental health problem such as depression or anxiety each year, demonstrating how many lives are touched by the issue.

Yet the statistics only tell part of the story. With a number of public figures and celebrities talking so openly about mental health and encouraging others to do so, the human side of discussing depression and anxiety is now coming to the fore.

So what is contributing to the rise of mental health issues in the workplace? Whilst clearly many factors, both societal and personal, will have an impact, the pace of technological change was identified as a factor putting pressure on employees.

Concerningly, the knock-on effect of technology also had an impact, with younger workers reporting loneliness; despite having their mobile phones to hand allowing them to connect remotely to people, they felt isolated in office situations, unable to hold conversations with colleagues.

Undoubtedly mental health issues are inextricably linked to, and impact upon, the workplace. Employers must recognise that with the “always on” culture that has been generated by advances in technology and consumer expectations of instant service or product provision, workers have never been so under pressure and so lacking in meaningful time off.

What we identified through collaboration with our clients is that future-facing employers need to find ways of allowing detox and disconnect, whilst still maintaining productivity and competitive advantage. With the advent of agile working, surely there must be creative ways in which this can be achieved?

In terms of supporting employees with, or vulnerable to, mental health issues, employers should consider bespoke policies which are informed by the specific challenges created by “unseen” conditions such as stress, anxiety and depression.

We need to tackle the stigma surrounding mental health, and our discussions demonstrated that incremental steps can be taken to do so by perhaps referring to “mental injuries” in the same way that sports players refer to “physical injuries”, and rolling out mental health first aid training for all staff.

Forward-thinking employers could consider identifying coaches and mentors who are prepared to speak openly and honestly about their experiences, encouraging other colleagues to share their concerns and issues before they become unmanageable and sickness absence ensues. 

Support on return to work, and education of other colleagues are other tangible steps which will help shine a light on, and demystify, what many are predicting will be the biggest challenge to face employers and workers in the next decade.

If you would like a copy of the full paper we produced in collaboration with our clients, entitled Future Chemistry, please feel free to drop me an email.

By Jennifer Skeoch

Burness admin