There can be no doubt that public awareness of mental health conditions is improving, and that society is becoming more understanding and accepting of the problems people face everyday. Yet recent statistics appear to show that these problems haven’t diminished, and if anything have become more prevalent. The latest suicide statistics for the UK show an 11% rise in cases, with men accounting for three quarters of all people who took their own life in 2018.
It’s easy to speculate about the root causes of this problem, from grand issues like climate change and politics to the pressures of social media. Yet statistics consistently show that employment and financial issues rank among the biggest contributors to depression - making the workplace a key area of focus. While employers are beginning to step up, there’s more that can be done to support people, and make a dent in these tragic figures.
The latest figures do not make for happy reading. There was a total of 6,507 suicides in the UK last year, equating to 11.2 per 100,000 people. While men were disproportionately affected, the figures rose for groups across the board. The rate among young people aged 10-24 reached a 19-year high, while the rate of suicides among young women is the highest in recorded history. However, it is worth noting that 2017 was a record low for male suicides, with a rate of 15.5 per 100,000.
As mentioned, this spike in statistics correlates with a number of issues which many people are struggling to deal with. Poverty remains a significant problem in the UK, with food bank usage at a record high, and prevalent issues with the benefits system. But global pressures are also making themselves known. The issue of Brexit is a vexing one for many young people, who worry about their futures outside of the EU. Meanwhile, global leaders seem to be blocking progress on important issues such as climate change, instead creating a climate of despair.
The increase in suicides is only the most tragic and clear face of a much deeper problem with mental illness. Statistics indicate that as many as 20% of people in the UK have showed some signs of anxiety or depression, while over 20% of people in England have had suicidal thoughts in their lifetime, over 7% have self-harmed and over 6% have attempted to end their own life. Crucially, the statistics for England were collected from those in private housing; it’s speculated that the statistics for those in less permanent homes are significantly worse.
While there are many contributors to mental illnesses, one of the biggest is money, and the stability it provides. You may think that this is as simple as paying a good wage, and this can certainly help - but it’s rarely that simple. A good wage for a certain industry may still be low in the grand scheme of things, and require someone to work multiple jobs, something which is becoming increasingly common. What’s more, earning a good wage can actually elevate the pressure on some people, who may feel that they are under pressure, or not doing enough to earn that money.
People with mental illnesses often feel that they lack support in the workplace, and that they have to put on a ‘brave face’ and ‘muscle through’. For some, the conversation with bosses or co-workers is simply an uncomfortable one; for others, there’s the fear that they won’t be taken seriously, or that their efforts to ease the burden will compromise their work or job security. As a result they keep their problems bottled up, compromising their ability to work effectively, and damaging both themselves and the business as a whole.
Businesses are not entirely ignorant to this issue, of course, and things are beginning to change. September saw the extremely positive news that mental health awareness training is taking off as a major scheme among large employers, with 1 in 100 employees in the UK now thought to have some form of mental health training. We need to be careful not to assume that this solves the problem however, and look deeper than just identifying mental health issues, right down to the problems that cause them.
Data from the NHS indicates that 31% of people are taking time off work due to mental health issues, with a 14% rise in doctor’s notes for stress and anxiety between 2017 and 2018. This is just the people who admit to taking time off for mental health issues, too, and not the likely many more people who take holidays with a view to improving their mental wellbeing. What’s clear is that employers can do more to improve the work-life balance of their employees, and make the experience of coming to work a less stressful one.
Allowing employees to work from home occasionally is one approach. While not suitable for all businesses, giving people this autonomy to work from their computer at home provides them with a more relaxed day each week, reducing the time they spend travelling to work and concerns about their appearance, or stressful aspects of the working environment. Many businesses find that their employees get more work done on these days, while still retaining the benefits of a structured working day.
Communication is also key. This applies not only to reducing the stigma around mental health issues and empowering people to share their problems, but also highlighting the causes of poor mental health before they become a problem. If an employee is struggling with their workload or worrying about bills, this shouldn’t only be dealt with at the point where it impacts on their mental health. A flexible working environment in which co-workers help each other, sharing work and balancing loads, is a happier place for everyone to be.
Lee Sadd, Operations & Training Director at health and safety consultancy SAMS Ltd. SAMS is a leading provider of First Aid for Mental Health training and offers a range of classroom courses, consultancy services and event management solutions.