Yesterday was ‘Time to Talk’ day, a day about getting people to talk about mental health.  Why does talking about mental health matter to business?  It matters because mental health problems cost UK business over £26bn per year and such issues are now recognised as the number one reason for time off work.   

However, absence is not the only issue – ‘presenteeism’ alone costs businesses over £15bn per year. What is ‘presenteeism’, you might well ask? It is the cost incurred to businesses by people who are in work but not performing properly due to their ill health.  You may recognise presentees in your own office: their behaviour has changed, they contribute less in meetings, are working much longer or shorter hours than usual, they’re emailing at unusual time, have become isolated and generally are not performing well.    

Because the person is still in work and more or less functioning, businesses do not usually take adaptive measures.  Because of this, eventually presenteeism often turns into absence and the business costs escalate.    

Much of the cost of presenteeism and absenteeism can be attributed to stigma around mental health.  Stigma prevents employees from:

  • disclosing their issues to their line manager (whose time you are paying for);
  • using Occupational Health (which you are paying for);
  • using your employee assistance line (which you are paying for);
  • disclosing their issue to HR (which you are paying for);
  • from talking about their mental health and generally to anyone who might be in a position to do anything to help.   

Not talking about mental health therefore means that employees are less likely to get support which means they are more likely to have worsening mental health, poorer performance and possible absenteeism – it’s a vicious circle.    

So, it’s clear that not talking about mental health costs business money and it’s time to talk…how should you go about it?   

Talking about mental health need not be an Oprah Winfrey-style confessional outpouring or a Regan and Carter style interrogation.  In fact, we all talk about mental health every day; we do this without knowing it. Do you want to know what the revolutionary, clinically precise question we ask is?    

“How are you?”  Or “How are things?” or “How’s it going?” – you get the idea.  

Yes, when you are asking someone how they are, you are enquiring – at least in part – after their mental health. Your mental health is your ability to process and experience your existence. 100% of people have mental health, and around 1 in 4 of us will experience a problem with it at some point in our lives. Your mental and physical health are inextricably linked, and combine to form a concept known as wellbeing. Like your physical health, your mental health fluctuates.  It is inevitably affected by what happens at work and, in turn, affects how you perform at work and how much benefit employers get from your being there.   

There are many different steps you can take to address mental health in the workplace but the first one is simple.  We need to reclaim this simple question:  

“How are you?”    

You may not get immediately a full answer or indeed any answer at all, but if you keep asking, you are doing your best to open a door, to create an environment where one day your employee might feel empowered to say “Actually, not that great”.  Then it’s time to talk. 

Coming next – getting prepared for the answer.

Alex Tambourides – Chief Executive, Hammersmith and Fulham Mind