A mental health consultant says companies should take the emotional wellbeing of their employees as seriously as their physical health and safety.
Chris Stewart delivers mental health first aid training to employees in businesses across the UK. Volunteers are taught how to identify and support colleagues who are suffering from mental health issues including anxiety, stress, and depression.
With the organisation Mental Health First Aid England, Chris is calling for one in ten of the workforce to be trained in mental health first aid.
"Bad backs used to be the biggest single cause of absenteeism in the workplace," said Chris, an accredited MHFA England trainer who runs Marlborough-based consultancy Minding Minds.
"Then we introduced manual handling courses, and taught people how to sit properly at their workstations. Now mental ill-health is the biggest problem facing company owners and HR managers. The cost of sick leave, redundancy, rehiring, and retraining can run into thousands of pounds."
According to the Centre for Mental Health, one in five working people have a mental health difficulty at any one time. The estimated cost of mental ill-health to the UK economy is £1,300 per employee.
Irritable bowel syndrome, headaches, backaches, and heart palpitations can all be manifestations of mental ill-health, while a lack of care over personal appearance, loss of confidence, memory loss, sudden weight loss or gain, and irritability are some of the tell-tale signs of anxiety or depression.
Mental health first aiders are taught to look out for those signs and given the tools to approach colleagues about their mental health, or provide a listening ear if workmates come to them.
"By tackling mental health-driven absenteeism and presenteeism – reduced productivity from people who are at work but unwell – companies can save the business hundreds or thousands of pounds a year," said Chris.
"But they can also prevent the further suffering of their employees – and maybe even save a life, with suicide continuing to be the biggest killer of men under 45."
Once mental ill-health has been identified, treatment is available through the NHS or, often, privately through employees' health insurance contracts.
Meanwhile, a supportive work culture – more flexible work hours, a reduced workload, or just a sympathetic ear when an employee calls in sick – can get them on the road to recovery more quickly.
And forward-thinking businesses that take the mental wellbeing of their employees seriously enjoy higher staff retention rates and increased loyalty.
Chris had to give up his job in retail and catering management after his excessive drinking became a problem. He had been misusing alcohol since his late teens to self-medicate against the symptoms of undiagnosed bipolar disorder and general anxiety.
He put down his last drink in 2005, after a 'lost decade', and began volunteering for a homeless hostel in Newbury. That led to him setting up a West Berkshire's first dedicated alcohol service, with Turning Point, in 2008. He was soon acting as the national media spokesman for the organisation.
Following a spell in Barbados, where he worked on the service design, and governmental permissions for a high-end treatment and rehabilitation centre, Chris returned to the area in 2017. It was on his return to the UK that he found out about the mental health first aid movement, which had started in Australia back in 2000.
"Immediately, I thought 'Oh my God, this is genius'," said Chris. "I also recognised there was a business opportunity there."
Today, there are 1.7 million mental health first aiders in 26 countries around the world, but the UK has been slower on the uptake than other countries.
Chris' ambition is for Minding Minds to be the largest commercial provider of mental health first aid training in the UK.
For more information vist www.mindingminds.co.uk