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Factsheets

Making a start – What is mental wellbeing at work?

06 Feb 2019

A growing body of evidence has demonstrated the huge cost of poor mental health at work to UK companies, and the benefits which follow concerted action to nurture positive mental wellbeing in the workplace. This factsheet will benefit all company directors - especially those who find mental health at work a difficult subject to address.


Mental wellbeing is your day-to-day status which informs your overall mental health. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development and mental health charity Mind, mental wellbeing is “the ability to cope with the day-to-day stresses of life, work productively, interact positively with others and realise our own potential.”

When we are “confident”, “up for the challenge”, “handling the pressure” etc, we are describing positive mental wellbeing. What employer doesn’t want employees who are “engaged”, “switched on”, “committed”? - All expressions of positive mental wellbeing.

As an organisation of company directors, the IoD takes a particular interest in the mental wellbeing of business leaders. Company directors are exceptional people, and are the subject of demands and expectations from themselves, other people, and the law. The IoD encourages its members to work hard but work smart – and to accept that their own mental wellbeing is key to their own performance and the success of their business.

Companies are human organisations, it stands to reason that the mental wellbeing of the people involved will affect company performance. Always has done, always will. An expanding body of research has provided detail on the costs and benefits involved, providing a business case for action.


The business case

Costs of poor mental health at work – key facts

Thriving at Work: the 2017 Stevenson-Farmer Review found that, in addition to the human costs of mental illness, the ‘economic costs to employers, directly to Government and to the economy as a whole are also far greater than we had anticipated’.

The review commissioned new analysis from Deloitte on the costs to employers of mental health illness, which amounts to a cost per employee of between £1,205 and £1,560 per year – between £33 billion and £42 billion a year (Deloitte 2017). This is made up of:

  • Absenteeism cost: £8 billion
  • Presenteeism cost: £17 billion to £26 billion
  • Staff turnover: £8 billion

That people working in an unfit state (presenteeism) costs more money than absence is a wake-up call for any company which thinks a low rate of staff absence means that mental ill health is not an issue.

Further evidence was contained in the 2018 edition of Health and well-being at work from the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development and Simplyhealth. This annual survey, running for the past 18 years, presented a mixed picture. The number of cases of employees experiencing mental health issues at work is rising. This trend will certainly be due in part to the scale of the extant problem being revealed. 87 percent of survey respondents also stated that modern technology and working patterns make it harder for staff to ‘switch off’. On the plus side, more companies are getting pro-active on mental wellbeing – 40 percent of companies now have a standalone wellbeing strategy and 55 percent say mental wellbeing is on the agenda of senior leaders.

Return on investment

The Stevenson-Farmer Review was supported by a major research project by Deloitte which included return on investment. A business making an intervention on mental health can expect an average ROI of £4.20, with the most successful programmes returning £9 of benefit for every £1 spent.

Taking the initiative on supporting mental wellbeing at work does not only mitigate the costs of absence and low productivity. Being seen as a leader on mental wellbeing will add to a company’s reputation (especially in the competition for talent).  Shareholders and stakeholders are likely to include mental wellbeing amongst their measures of company performance.


What can a business leader do to support mental wellbeing at work?

UK law requires employers to take reasonable measures to protect employees for debilitating levels of stress. These are set out in a Stress At Work Policy which forms part of a company’s standing workplace policies. IoD members can request a template stress policy from the IoD Business Information Service.

Request A Template Stress At Work Policy

Mental wellbeing asks fundamental questions about how a company is organised and to what purpose. For this reason a policy to protect and promote mental wellbeing should be a part of a company’s strategic vision for itself.

Alison Charles, wellbeing in the workplace consultant and IoD member, explains:

“The wellbeing strategy must come from the boardroom. It is ideally defined as part of the Corporate Social Responsibility Strategy. The wellbeing strategy and behaviour has to be embedded into the culture of the organisation.  Smaller tech start-ups seem to have this nailed. The wellbeing policy management is either part of the HR remit or health and safety function, although some companies are creating the role “Wellbeing Manager” nowadays.”

How is positive mental wellbeing at work achieved?

A commitment to mental wellbeing must be high-profile, systematic and persistent. One way in which a business can make a clear statement of intent is to sign the Time To Change Employer Pledge.

One-off gestures and tokenism will only make a (possibly) bad situation worse. A programme to promote and sustain positive mental wellbeing will include the following actions.

Measure current mental wellbeing

Before starting on a mental wellbeing programme, measure the existing mental wellbeing of employees. Options include using a confidential questionnaire (even a few simple questions can be revelatory) or a more detailed audit such as Mind’s Workplace Wellbeing Index. IoD members receive a discount on their first application for a Workplace Wellbeing Index audit.

Create a dedicated mental health policy

Mental health is too important to be contained in a vaguely worded statement on general employee wellbeing. The policy should clearly explain what the business is doing to foster positive mental wellbeing and provide a clear path for employees to follow if they need to raise an issue.

Examine the design of work and workloads

A permanent state of overworking has proven links poor mental health. Also be aware that having too little work has a negative impact. Monotonous and unpleasant tasks (or a lack of variation if such tasks are essential) are also a negative factor. Employees should clearly understand why their work is important, and be consulted on decisions directly affecting their work.

Examine the physical workplace

The condition of the workplace will signal to employees how they are understood and valued by their employer. Air quality, natural light levels, and hygiene standards are some of the most important influences on our mood in the workplace.

Lead by example

The credibility of a mental wellbeing programme relies on a clear, unambiguous endorsement from the leadership team. A senior management champion for the programme is recommended.

Engage with employees

There are two important elements here:

  • Communication around the actual delivery of a company mental health programme so that employees know what is to happen, see it happening, and accept the programme as a permanent feature of the workplace.
  • Continuing communications which support positive mental wellbeing – This includes structured employee appraisals, the setting of clear, attainable objectives, leadership on work-life balance. (Most underperforming companies take a casual and inconsistent approach to such matters)

Train line managers

Research has consistently shown that it is trained line managers that make a mental wellbeing policy work effectively. Training should help enable them to detect work-related stress in themselves and others, challenge prejudice, and conduct difficult conversations with staff they become concerned about. Managers should be fully aware of the company policy and offering to employees, and be able to signpost them to appropriate help. Of course, such training is specialist by nature and likely to involve external expertise. Mind's Line Manager Training offer is one to consider.


Further information

The IoD's resources on mental health and the workplace are collected in a dedicated hub:
Mental Health & Wellbeing in the Workplace

Mind has created a Mental Health At Work Gateway which serves as a one stop resource on all aspects of mental wellbeing at work. The Gateway has the active support of the IoD.

There is a growing body of research into mental health at work. The following selections are notable for their authority and the clarity of their recommendations.

People Manager’s Guide To Mental Health (2018) – Leading mental health charity Mind and the Chartered Institute for Personnel Development (CIPD) produced an accessible guide to good mental wellbeing at work.

Health and well-being at work (2018) – The latest edition of the CIPD’s penetrating survey of employee wellbeing. The project includes a detailed analysis of reasons for absence.

The Stevenson-Farmer Review (2017) – This Government-commissioned review of mental health at work fully exposed the cost to British businesses and recommended a series of practicable changes for companies to make.

At A Tipping Point? (2017) – Deloitte sets out the stark financial cost of ignoring mental health at work, and examines the demographic shifts driving workplace mental wellbeing up the agenda.

Mental Health Toolkit For Employers (2016) – Business In The Community and Public Health England provide a comprehensive guide for employers to establish and maintain a mental wellbeing programme.

Time To Change (2007) – Mental health charities Mind and Rethink worked with the Department of Health to deliver this penetrating analysis of what employees need from employers to ensure positive mental wellbeing at work.


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