More needs to be done to tackle mental health in the workplace, says Sir Cary

Although awareness of mental health issues has greatly increased in recent years, far more still needs to be done to tackle it in the workplace.

Speaking at our latest Vital Topics debate on mental wellbeing in the workplace, Sir Cary Cooper, 50th Anniversary Professor of Organisational Psychology at Alliance MBS, said stress still remained “a four-letter word” in the office despite the huge cost to employers - and impact on productivity - of mental health.

“How many people would actually be prepared to tell their line manager today that they had a mental health problem? I fear the number is still very small. We have to get more people talking about these issues.”

While applauding the efforts of high-profile figures such as Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry to raise the issue of mental health, Sir Cary said there was still a long way to go in breaking long-held taboos around the subject.

“In terms of awareness of mental health I would give it eight out of ten. But when it comes to tackling it I would say it’s nearer three. Wherever you are from in the world, a quarter of people will suffer from depression and anxiety during their lifetime. Yet here in the UK the NHS spends less than 10% of its budget on mental health. We need far more parity in terms of spend between mental and physical health.”

Sir Cary said one of the stumbling blocks was that when people think of mental health they often think of severe long-term conditions such as schizophrenia. Yet he said the reality was that 95% of mental health conditions were “totally treatable”.

Sir Cary himself is about to give evidence to a major government commission on the issue. Earlier this year the Prime Minister appointed Lord Stevenson and Paul Farmer, the CEO of mental health charity Mind, to lead a review on how best to ensure employees with mental health issues are well supported in the workplace.

Emotional skills

In terms of creating work environments that ensure people stay healthy, Sir Cary said business schools had a role to play in helping better equip managers of the future with the emotional skills required to better manage staff.

“Everything that affects you as an employee is linked to the environment that your line manager creates. Line managers need to know how they can affect people. When line managers are being appointed their bosses need to not just consider their technical skills but their interpersonal skills.”

Looking back on his distinguished career, Sir Cary said his own passion for the subject came from his first-hand experiences as a social worker in Los Angeles while he was studying for a behavioural science MBA. “I saw depression, anxiety and drugs and it affected me dramatically. In particular I saw the link between deprivation and depression. A lot of research in this whole area comes from very personal experiences.”

Our event also heard from biophilic design expert Oliver Heath who talked about the importance of creating the right working environments to reduce stress in the workplace.

“Stress is on the rise and accounts for more than a third of all work-related ill health cases. Improved design can improve productivity and we need to create smarter places to work. Workers in office environments with natural elements consistently report higher levels of wellbeing. Biophilic design is better for people, better for productivity and better for the planet.”

He added that another huge issue was the massive proliferation of mobile technology. “It is as if we spend our lives moving from screen to screen. We are always ‘on’ and don’t have a chance to recuperate.”

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