Coming together to address the issue of mental health

By Tony Cates, Head of Audit at KPMG

There is no doubt that mental health and well-being has become a growing issue for business. The protracted economic downturn has increased the pressure on both companies and individuals, and the problem of stress and depression has therefore become more prevalent. It has been estimated that mental health issues cost business some £30bn a year in absence and lost productivity. One in seven people in the working population can be expected to be affected by mental health issues during their careers.


It was against this backdrop that KPMG and Linklaters held a session at KPMG’s Salisbury Square offices in the City, hosted by myself and Robert Elliott senior partner of Linklaters, to discuss and debate the implications for business. Attended by senior business leaders from companies across sectors and supported by several major mental health charities including Mental Health First Aid, it was one of the first events of its kind.


Chaired by Lord Patel, the shadow minister for communities in the House of Lords, the audience heard from an eminent panel consisting of Lord Layard, author of several books on happiness, Professor Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University and author of many books, and Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, a specialist in wellness programmes for the past 15 years.


There were some sobering statistics on offer. 40 per cent of absenteeism is due to mental health issues. Presenteeism, where people who are unwell nevertheless continue to come to work, is almost as big an issue. There have been some 20,000 studies written on workplace stress – but the problem remains just as big as ever.


So what can businesses do, in the accountancy sector and beyond, to tackle the issue more effectively?


The panel clearly identified three main sources of workplace stress. Looming large in first place was “the line manager”. Having an unsympathetic or overly demanding line manager was widely seen to be the primary source of stress at work for individuals. Not far behind in second place was long working hours (an issue that accountants may recognise more than most!). The panel said that study after study has shown that allowing work to take over your life – into the evenings and weekends, during holidays – is a major cause of illness. Not only that, but long hours almost invariably have a negative impact on quality of work. The third, related, factor was issues of work-life balance: the stress that results from trying to juggle competing demands in work and personal life.


Clearly then it is important that those with line manager responsibility develop their social and interpersonal skills. The panellists suggested that companies should place more emphasis on this when promoting individuals, instead of only looking at business performance and contribution to the bottom line. It is also important that line managers act as role models for managing stress and the pressures of work. For example, by taking little breaks to go and have a coffee or chat to colleagues; having a proper lunch hour from time to time; periodically informing colleagues that they will be “taking the weekend off” (ie not checking the Blackberry!), etc. Little things can make a big difference.


There is a positive slant to all this too, of course. The panellists agreed that companies are “starting to get the message” and that their focus on these issues has risen in recent years. Greater awareness will surely lead to great action. The fact of the event taking place at all was a step forward in itself.


Most positive of all, there was a real will and commitment across participants that the event should not peter out as a one off. Discussions are commencing as to how to build on the momentum – potentially through a “City Alliance” of companies actively committed to tackling issues of mental health.


Watch this space.


This article first appeared in the London Accountant

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