According to mental health charity Mind, one-in-four people experience a mental health problem in the UK each year – so the
likelihood is high that someone in your workplace is struggling with stress, anxiety or depression right now.
While several of Manchester’s key entrepreneurs have spoken publicly about their experiences, the reality is that many more workers stay silent.
“It takes a lot to get over the slightly warped, alpha male attitude in business where you have to suck it up and get on with it,” said Professor Vikas Shah, a serial entrepreneur and international business icon, who has spoken freely in the press about his anxiety and depression.
Professor Shah is managing director of the Swiscot Group, a Manchester-based textiles and commodities trading firm, visiting Professor of Entrepreneurship with MIT Sloan and an honorary professor at the Alliance Manchester Business School.
He elaborated: “There’s also the sense that as a business ‘leader’ you shouldn’t show weakness. It’s not that people have said not to talk about these things, it’s just that this attitude has become a dogma within business.”
Professor Shah, who has battled anxiety since his teens, explained that the pressures of being a young business owner caused his stress levels to rocket.
“As I got into the workplace and started my own business in a very high pressured world, I found that these issues became magnified, and instead of just feeling anxious I started to feel depressed and couldn’t function the way I wanted to because of an overwhelming sense of emotion.
“It got so bad that I considered suicide. At that point I decided enough was enough and that I needed to get serious about getting help.
“The issues are very resolvable. People get well and get back to normal, if they seek the proper medical help.”
Although attitudes to mental health are changing, he believes that a huge amount of people in the business community are experiencing related problems, all the while suffering in silence due to the stigma surrounding stress, anxiety, depression and similar conditions.
“A surprising number of people have approached me privately since I opened up about it, revealing that they have gone through similar issues and asking for my recommendations for help.
“In America, everyone by default has a therapist. It’s like having a dentist. In the same way people would think you’re strange for not having a dentist, therapy is very normal.
“The brain is the most complex organ in the body and is likely to fail us occasionally but we still feel somewhat embarrassed about having a specialist to help us look after it.”
Sam Jones, managing director of the innovative digital marketing agency, Tunafish, based in Manchester, is another business leader who has spoken frankly about panic attacks.
Like Professor Shah, Jones said his anxiety started at a young age.
“I am generally an anxious person and this started when I was a kid,” he said.
“It’s something I have always kept to myself because, at first, I didn’t know what it was – I just knew it wasn’t normal.
“Then I got bit of help at university and started to understand what it was and how I could look after myself a bit more and keep an eye on the signs.”
Jones and two friends launched Tunafish in 2011, when Jones was just 22. The business has grown rapidly and achieved widespread acclaim, with Jones receiving a string of awards including Made in Manchester Business Development Professional of the Year in 2014. He kept his panic attacks private until he had a full-blown panic attack in the office in front of his team.
“They thought I was having a heart attack,” he said.
“They wanted to call an ambulance and I had to explain that I’d be ok in about 30 minutes. From there the only real option was to be open about it.”
Panic attacks can last from five to 30 minutes. During an attack, a sufferer experiences sudden attacks of intense anxiety or fear, during which they can feel as if they are going to either die, lose control, or go crazy.
Physical symptoms can include shaking, feeling disorientated, nausea, rapid, irregular heartbeats, dry mouth, breathlessness, sweating and dizziness.
The symptoms of a panic attack are not dangerous, but can be very frightening.
Jones decided to talk about it publicly when a journalist friend urged him to do so as part of Mental Health Week, in May.
“I now know that it’s something that many business owners go through,” said Jones. “After I spoke about it, loads of people got in touch – people who I’d never have imagined had issues with anxiety, to say that they had problems with it too. There’s still a bit of a stigma, but if people talk about it this stigma will go away.”
Candid discussion about mental health is certainly a step forward, but Professor Shah wants to see businesses using their influence to lobby for real change so that mental health is treated in the same way as our health issues in the workplace.
He urges businesses to look at their HR policy and ensure that it’s flexible enough to make allowances for any mental health issues, and to
prioritise training staff on how to deal with these.
“The first aid approach is very important,” he said. “As much as you have people trained in first aid by law, your business should have people trained in mental first aid. It is really important and there are lots of providers that do that.”
One such provider is Anxiety UK, headquartered in Manchester and the country’s leading anxiety disorders charity.
In addition to supporting individuals, it delivers training and consultancy services to businesses from major blue chip companies to SMEs, health bodies, schools and colleges and other voluntary sector organisations.
According to Anxiety UK, work related stress, anxiety and depression is costing the UK’s economy an estimated £70-100bn annually, and 70m sick days per year. Close to 250,000 new cases of work related stress, depression or anxiety were diagnosed in the UK in 2015 – 668 a day, or one every 2.1 minutes.
“The very first step is to ensure companies understand what stress, anxiety and depression are,” said Nicky Lidbetter, chief executive.
“It’s a two-pronged approach. Employees need to be trained on what stress is and how to manage it, as they don’t always recognise the symptoms themselves. Then managers need to be trained in how to recognise the signs and deal with them.”
The charity also provides tailored Employee Assistant Programmes (EAP) for companies. EAPs are intended to help employees deal with personal problems that might adversely impact their work performance, health and wellbeing.
They generally offer free and confidential assessments, short-term counselling, referrals and follow-up services for employees and their household members.
Beyond this, Lidbetter emphasises that there are many small steps a company can take to foster a culture of openness and support, such as putting up posters displaying information on mental health and where to get help, or appointing wellbeing champions in the workplace.
“It could be as simple as organising running groups, a Pilates class or reminding employees to take breaks from their desks and get outdoors at lunch time,” she said.
“Companies could also run mental health workshops. Employees will show up to these kind of events without thinking there is a stigmatic mental health label on them.”
Lidbetter believes that mental health strategy doesn’t have to be costly and that all employers should have a duty of care to ensure that employees are psychologically safe.
“In years to come, we will be viewing the psychological safety of our staff in the same way we view health and safety legislation around physical safety in the workplace.
“There will be an expectation that employers will see that staff are psychologically safe, and it will no longer be an optional thing as it will become something that’s clearly mandated.”
Companies must take issue seriously
With mental health and wellbeing being such a topical issue, it comes as no surprise that we are experiencing such a significant upturn in enquiries from our employer clients in this area.
Similarly, we have seen a marked increase in the number of tribunal claims where an employee relies on a mental illness, often depression and anxiety to support a disability discrimination claim.
Typically, we are asked about how to approach an employee who discloses they are struggling, for example, with stress, anxiety and depression, strategies to support and manage them and the various risks associated if an employer gets things wrong.
There remains a degree of stigma associated with mental illness and there is clearly still some way to go.
However, what I have found encouraging is how keen our clients are to learn more about managing mental health at work.
Having asked what area of employment law they most wanted JMW to provide training on, mental health and wellbeing came out top.
I would say that employers are now more receptive to the reality that mental illness is a serious issue and just as valid as physical illness in terms of the potential impact for a business not just in terms of absence levels but on productivity generally and risk.
The law protects employees from disability discrimination and both physical and mental impairments can amount to a disability provided the other key ingredients to support disability are present.
Anxiety stress and depression (and related conditions) which are substantial and long term and have an adverse effect on an employee’s day to day activities (for example the ability to concentrate) may amount to a disability giving rise to protection under the Equality Act 2010.
Where someone is protected there is a positive duty to make reasonable adjustments in many cases.
This might mean you need to consider things like extending flexible working policies to allow commuting outside of rush hours, allowing staff to take time off work for appointments, make changes to a working area, home working, temporarily re-allocating tasks they find stressful and difficult.
It is always advisable to maintain clear lines of communication with the employee and for the employer to ask him or her what they feel might help them in their role.
Other potential claims that an employer might face include personal injury, breach of contract, constructive dismissal and Harassment.
I would recommend to all employers that they take a proactive approach, one such step would be to revisit their equality and diversity policy and consider introducing a stress at work policy.
I would also advise employers to offer training to its managers on for example how to recognise the tell-tale warning signs of stress, anxiety and depression, how to respond when an employee discloses that they have depression for example equipping management with skills will not only instil trust between the employee and the manager who is dealing but will mean that any reasonable adjustments that might be needed can be implemented at an early stage.
This will hopefully translate into fewer absences and a more engaged workforce.
It is also worth noting that if an employer does end up having to defend a discrimination claim they are in a better position to rebut a claim where they can satisfy a tribunal that as an organisation there is a culture of equality and diversity led from the most senior management and that discrimination will not be tolerated.
Liz Cotton, partner and head of employment at JMW Solicitors LLP