31 October 2017 Victoria Saunders

victoria saunders small

In September, Victoria Saunders - Team Leader- Local Roads Maintenance, Hertfordshire (UK) spoke on mental health in the workplace at the Inspire Summit in Manchester, an event for women in the construction industry.

I choose to advocate mental health in the workplace because it is a topic close to my heart, as I have not only experienced discrimination myself but have also seen those close to me discriminated against as well because of mental health issues. As such, I wanted to share with the audience my experiences and advice. 

Having mental health on the agenda at events such as this can be seen to show an increased awareness of the understanding of employees needing to be mentally well to be able to sustain healthy and rewarding careers. In our industry, we are used to regular communication on health and safety, but I spoke of the shift at Opus from a health and safety culture to health, safety and wellbeing, which sparked some interest amongst other organisations who hadn’t considered this part of the same picture. It is not difficult to see a link, at a very basic level, where an employee’s safety at work could be compromised because of their state of mind.

For some context, in December 2015 the Health Survey for England found that 26% of adults had reported being diagnosed with at least one mental health problem. By 2030 it is estimated that approximately 2 million more adults in the UK will have mental health problems compared to those in 2013.

 Challenging the bias

There can be a pretence that someone with a mental health condition is unable to work efficiently and that their work output will surely be low. To tackle this stigma, the need to challenge this is essential and managers need to be enabled to support staff by being available to listen. For many the first hurdle is understanding that something is wrong, so creating a culture where people feel able to talk about mental health plays an essential role.

Many may have seen a recent exchange between a woman and her CEO after using her sick leave to concentrate on her mental health. Their conversation went viral and was celebrated by news media across the world as a breakthrough in the world of corporate health and safety, however it also brought to the surface how far we still have to go in making this standard practice and to break the stigma of mental health issues not being ‘real’ health issues.

What can employers do to support those with mental health problems

Employers can offer employee assistant programmes to provide someone for people to talk to in confidence. Opus’ service is delivered by Optum, who also help managers with strategies to support an employee who has a mental health condition. From what I have learnt over the years, it’s important to give time to your staff, but as a manager, I schedule monthly catch ups with each member of my team to simply ask them in person, ‘How are you?’ especially in this digital age where it is all too tempting to hide behind a computer screen. This opportunity to talk gives reassurance to staff that if they are experiencing poor mental health that they will be understood and supported. 

I was humbled by how many women approached me after my speaking slot to comment on my bravery to talk about my own mental health issues and the discrimination that I had experienced. People admitted that they had kept quiet about their mental health because of the fear of discrimination at work and many who had spoken out had unfortunately gone on to experience discrimination. 

With only 2 in 5 women and 1 in 3 men saying they feel the culture in their organisation makes it possible to speak openly about their mental health problems, it shows that employers still have much to do, so my message to the industry is to continue to push for health, safety and wellbeing to be top of business’ agenda.

What to do if you need support with mental health problems

There is a wealth of information, advice and support online at www.mind.org.uk, as well as other local organisations.