Mental health is the most common cause of days off sick in the UK after minor illnesses, according to the Office for National Statistics. Its figures show that around 17 million working days were lost in the UK to sick leave caused by mental health issues in 2015, an increase of 25 percent on 2014.
Yet talking about mental health issues remains a big taboo. One employer which is confronting this is M&G. The company held its first Mind Matters colleague network this week. The session was held in a packed room and was filmed for those who could not attend. The speakers were Johnny Benjamin and Neil Laybourn.
They told the moving story of how they met – Neil spotted Johnny on Waterloo Bridge in January 2008 as he was preparing to throw himself off. Neil, a fitness instructor, was on his way into work and said alarm bells started ringing when he saw Johnny sitting on one side of the bridge staring into the water. He approached him and engaged him in conversation, managing gradually to talk him into coming off the side of the bridge to go for a coffee with him. At that moment, however, the police turned up and handcuffed Johnny and drove him off to be sectioned.
Neil worried about what had happened to Johnny over the next years. Johnny in turn remembered the fact that Neil had listened to him without judging and had told him not to be embarrassed and that he would get better. No-one had told him that since he was 10 when he first started hearing voices. He started working with the mental health charity Rethink Mental Illness and they suggested he try to track down Neil and use the story to raise awareness of mental illness. They launched a campaign which went viral and eventually Neil saw it and got in touch. There was an emotional reunion which sparked more media coverage and social media around the world and a Channel 4 film, The Man on the Bridge. The two men even got invited to the US to be interviewed.
They are now raising funds for the Heads Together charity by running the London marathon.
Johnny, who was diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder after years of self harming, hearing voices and a psychotic episode, made the point that, although mental heath problems are extremely common, they are a poor relation to physical health problems – not just in terms of funding [they get 10% of health funding] but also in terms of the stigma associated with them. Most mental health problems begin in adolescence, he said. He would like to see more education outreach to schools to break down that stigma and to encourage people to talk about their mental health honestly. He suffered from years of trying to mask what he was feeling.
The session was a powerful argument for getting people to be more open about mental health issues and M&G staff asked Johnny and Neil questions about how their network could help break down taboos around them. It was noted that, in an increasingly fast-paced world with multiple demands from work and family, those problems are likely to increase. Neil said policies were not enough. A good mental health network had to be driven by people. That meant identifying the right people and empowering them to make a difference. Talking about mental health issues openly would allow the right people to present themselves, he said, and they needed to be given the time to build the network.
He added that including mental heath under a general wellbeing umbrella would not be as effective as giving it its own separate identity. He would also like to see networks sharing knowledge that helps employees dealing with mental health problems. That included parents. Given many mental health problems begin in adolescence, parents need more support in how to deal with them, said Johnny. There was a big focus on childhood obesity, he added, but suicide was the biggest killer of young men and their suicide rates had not reduced in 30 years.
The session certainly drove home the point that mental health is something everyone should be concerned about. It is interesting to see employers moving into this space, given the huge impact of work and work life issues on mental health. Who knows where being able to talk about the issues openly could lead?
*Mum on the run is Mandy Garner, editor of Workingmums.co.uk.