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What business is getting wrong with mental health problems in the workplace

A stressed businesswoman
Many businesses still don’t understand what it’s like to suffer from stress and depression Credit: PeopleImages/E+

Q Last month’s Mental Health Awareness Day was recognised pretty well by my employer, with some general emails, posters, drop-in sessions and so on, but interest has since dropped off massively. What can we do as a company to raise awareness of, and better support, mental health problems at work?

A Out of the blue a year ago, three Timpson colleagues independently asked me to write a book about mental health. One had struggled for years before plucking up the courage to talk to her boss. Another was having difficulty explaining to her team why they should be more sympathetic to a co-worker who needed time off due to stress. The final request came from someone whose close relative had sadly just taken his own life.

I started writing the following week. I had my own reasons for treating their request as a top priority, having experienced stress and depression myself since 1976. I had a really tough time in the 1980s and still have bad spells today.

I learnt a lot during the process – lessons that I hope all employers can learn from. 

The first is that most people find it difficult to admit they have a problem. Many are reluctant to talk to a doctor and almost all find it hard to start a critical conversation with their boss. Pressure-cooker workplaces filled with uncaring colleagues and hard-hearted executives can feel too hostile for fragile workers to cope.

The second is that while more companies are adopting new mental health policies and appointing specialist officers, many still don’t understand what it’s like to suffer from stress and depression. That’s why it’s important that more people are encouraged to speak out and describe what living with it feels like. Fellow sufferers will recognise the symptoms: constant worry about trivial problems, impatience, lack of self-esteem, not wanting to meet people, no energy and interrupted sleep. Life fluctuates from misery one minute to butterflies in the stomach the next.

Fellow colleagues, supervisors and senior management can also make life better or worse. The stigma that makes it so difficult to ask for help is strongest in macho organisations where love and kindness play no part. It will make a massive difference if you can persuade your chief executive to be a genuine champion for mental health support.

My third learning was that while stress and depression can hit anyone, the busiest and most conscientious workers can be most at risk. There’s a limit to how much work anyone can do, but some people force themselves to take on even more until it’s far too much. In organisations dominated by red tape and process, dedicated colleagues can feel overworked and undervalued. They work extra hard to compensate for the rigid regime and stress can be the result. Wellbeing is enhanced by organisations that trust the workforce with the freedom to make their own decisions

To turn a short-term mental health campaign into permanent support, consider training colleagues throughout the organisation to be mental health first aiders, who will be able to mentor colleagues and help them to find the support they need. We’re doing that with more than 100 Timpson staff, as well as developing an in-house counseling service. Like us, you might want to bring the topic to life by making a film about the problems that staff at all levels have experienced.

Employee engagement is key, which is why I have sent a copy of my book to every Timpson colleague at their home address. 

It’s available to anyone else who’s interested – and to get the ball rolling, I’ll send a free copy to the first 200 readers who email their postal address to [email protected]

Sir John Timpson is chairman of the high-street services provider, Timpson.

His book, A guide to Mental Health at Work, is available from most branches. All profits go to the Royal Foundation mental health charity Heads Together