By Melanie Pritchard, Success Coach & Corporate Wellbeing Trainer

Mental illness is a silent epidemic that gets far less airtime than COVID-19. With 1 in 4 of us suffering from a mental health issue every year in the UK at a cost of £26billion to UK business, the only shocking thing about it is the stigma that surrounds something so prevalent. With COVID-19 bringing mental health triggers to the masses from bereavement, financial and job worries to increased caring responsibilities, alcohol use and workload pressures, employers have never had a stronger duty of care to employees.

With the Centre for Mental Health predicting that 8.5 million more adults will need mental health support as a result of COVID-19, it is imperative that legal employers and their clients play their part in supporting organisational wellbeing.

Employee wellbeing support is particularly important for lawyers with studies showing that ‘Lawyers suffer from significantly lower levels of psychological and psychosomatic health and wellbeing than other professionals’ (University of Queensland). While 28% of lawyers suffer from depression (compared with 8% for the general population), approximately 19% are struggling with anxiety and 21 to 36% of lawyers qualify as problem drinkers. Add to this a global pandemic threatening the lives of loved ones and undermining job security and we have a one-of-a-kind melting pot ready to explode.

Organisations must continue to recognise that some employees will be struggling with the prospect of returning to work. Some will no doubt be worried about travel and the very real prospect of picking up the virus to carry back home. Some may be anxious about getting ill themselves, others will be carers for vulnerable individuals or have other legitimate reasons causing anxiety such as stress at home. With the pandemic putting mental health on everyone’s agenda, employee wellbeing has never been more relevant to corporate health.

Let us not forget the legal duty of care, as well as the moral duty, to look after the wellbeing of staff. The Health and Safety at Work Act stresses the importance of looking after employee mental health while the Equality Act states that employers cannot discriminate against people, including the disabled (where mental illness often falls).

This is all the more pressing when we consider that Mental Health First Aid England states that over 80% of managers admit to prejudice against employees struggling with their mental health and only about 20% of companies provide training to managers around the subject. No doubt high pressure legal environments are no exception. In fact, I recently asked a senior partner from a Magic Circle firm what they do to support mental health and she responded: ‘Driven people like us don’t suffer with those sort of issues’. Sadly, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Though many efforts of engagement within the legal profession have been reported, particularly during the pandemic, there is still a long way to go. The profession must not lose sight of this.

With leadership pervading the NICE guidelines as a key influence for workplace health management and organisational wellbeing and over 75% of line managers stating they feel responsible for employee wellbeing, organisations should consider training managers in mental health awareness. To quote Mark Foreman, Director of Trademarks at Osborne Clarke: ‘Mental health first aid courses should be compulsory for all line managers’. These courses teach individuals how to ask open, proactive questions and follow up sensitively, spot a change in behaviour and give the correct reassurance. They will also be taught how to deal with someone who wants to open up as well as someone who doesn’t.

With 99 million sick days taken every year in the UK for mental health reasons and the £36 billion cost to the UK economy annually in terms of lost turnover, productivity and recruitment costs, can companies really afford not to get serious about employee happiness? Even the most hard-hearted employers should remember the benefits of investing in management training, with Anne Mulcahy, former CEO of Xerox reminding us: “Employees who believe that management is concerned about them as a whole person – not just an employee – are more productive which leads to profitability”.

As well as training managers in how to support employee wellbeing, it’s vital not to overlook managers themselves who bear the brunt of overseeing a complex workforce. With 100% of the workforce having been psychologically affected by the pandemic whether they are the home-schooling parent, furloughed worker or isolated single dweller – supervising stakeholders has never been more challenging. Existing mental health issues will have been exacerbated for some, while the strains of the pandemic from financial concerns to relationship problems will have triggered mental health challenges for the first time for others from anxiety and depression to burnout and alcohol dependence.

While many stakeholders will welcome significant policy shifts towards longer-term working from home post-pandemic (studies show that over 40% of the workforce may fall in this bracket post-pandemic – compared to just 1 in 20 before COVID-19), increased online working will make spotting the signs and symptoms of mental illness even more challenging for managers. This is where mental health training can make all the difference, helping managers spot problems early before wellbeing and performance are affected – including their own. Now, more than ever, companies need to become more aware of the impact of stress in employees’ lives and the cost of unsupported mental health on the bottom line. As Richard Branson reminds us, “If you look after your staff, they’ll look after your customers. It’s that simple.”

We all know the high-performing professional or the smiling depressive who ‘seems happy’ but is struggling inside. Mental Health First Aiders are the gap between invisible struggle and conversation, between missing the signs and spotting them in time. Given that many of us spend more time at work than we do with our nearest and dearest, finding connectivity in chats by the coffee machine, lunches with co-workers or after-work drinks, it’s unsurprising employees can play such a key role in supporting one another’s wellbeing. With lockdown putting mental health on everyone’s agenda, it’s never been more important for companies to empower stakeholders to fulfil the corporate duty of care to employee wellbeing and to comply with legislation. With a Parliamentary Bill underway which aims to make mental health first aid training a requirement in workplaces, employers and colleagues could play an increasingly important part in spotting symptoms, signposting people to further help and simply just listening. For more sceptical stakeholders, Jorge Paulo Lemann, Co-founder of Banco Guarantia reminds us: “The greatest asset of a company is its people”.

Companies like Thames Water currently provide Mental Health First Aid Training as part of its wider mental health support for employees. According to Karl Simons, its Chief Health, Safety and Wellbeing Officer, mental health first aiders have helped devise a culture shift at the company. He said: “Confidence has grown throughout the company with people now much more willing to come forward, talk and seek support at their time of need”. For every physical first aid intervention Thames Water has had over the past year, Simons said there has been an average of five interventions for mental health. Over a five-year period, having Mental Health First Aiders on hand has led to a 75% decrease in occupational health referrals for stress, anxiety and depression.

The business case for a shift in organisational consciousness has never been clearer, with Deloitte reporting that companies which prioritise employee wellbeing gain a return of £5 to £11 for every £1 spent on mental health and wellbeing. Studies also show that FTSE 100 businesses that use the words ‘mental health’ or ‘wellbeing’ more than twice in their annual reports earn up to three times more profit. With 60% of employees saying they’d be more likely to recommend a business that looks after their wellbeing, companies can no longer afford not to get serious about happiness. Corporates must continue to engage with their employees in a supportive way if they want to build organisational effectiveness and comply with the law. For in the words of Albert Schweitzer, if there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us, it’s that “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success”.

Bio: Melanie Pritchard is a Lawyer turned Success Coach & Corporate Wellbeing Trainer at Melanie helps clients peak perform in their personal and professional lives – whether coaching employees to get clear on the right career, supporting them through life transitions or running mental health and wellbeing workshops which boost organisational wellbeing. Clients range from Osborne Clarke, Simons Muirhead & Burton, BP Collins and The Bar Standards Board to EDF, Network Rail, Balfour Beatty, Hearst UK and The Natural History Museum.