Mind over matter: why mental health has become a key business issue

Mental HealthBy Siobhan Doherty, CEO, Aware NI

In today’s fast-paced and ever-changing world, mental health is becoming increasingly important on the business agenda. It’s well known that good workplaces are often linked to broader, positive mental health outcomes, including increased job satisfaction and improved organisational efficiencies, but did you know that the way employees are managed could have a significant impact on their resilience and mental health?

Many people experience symptoms of distress, such as sleeplessness, irritability or a change in appetite without having a diagnosable mental health condition. Occasionally, these symptoms can lead to, or be part of, a mental health condition, such as anxiety or depression. For most people, such a shift from a high level of mental wellbeing is temporary, but for others, this can be a long-term condition in which they may experience acute phases.

There is a proven relationship between work-related stress and mental ill-health – excessive and persistent stress can trigger or escalate mental illness.

However, many people with mental-health conditions are working in all levels of employment and can be highly effective. The significant factors for employers and employees are the severity and duration of the symptoms and the impact they have on everyday activities. During this time, it may be helpful to consider and develop a person’s strengths and capabilities.

Lynda Bryans, Broadcaster and AWARE Trustee, who participated in the recent ‘It’s Me’ Campaign reiterated these points:

“Employers must regard mental health issues like any other illness. It’s essential to realise

that mental health problems can happen to anybody at any time. They are often short-term and treatable, and with the right support and assistance, employees can return to work.”

Why should senior management take notice?

To demonstrate leadership:

Board members and senior managers are highly influential in defining organisational culture and in setting priorities for employee wellbeing. They also influence structures to enable employee involvement and engagement at all levels.


While mental health problems are common and can occasionally be costly, many are relatively easily managed. Sickness absence, early retirement, increased staff turnover, recruitment, and training all impact on resources. Evidence also shows that productivity can be reduced through the lower level of performance of employees who are at work but experiencing stress or mental health issues. This is known as ‘presenteeism’ and is generally not costed.


Chief Executives are regularly being held to account on issues of public cost, such as sickness absence. Directors are similarly answerable to shareholders, and business owners are continually seeking efficiencies.

Legal requirements:

Mental wellbeing must be considered with the same duty of care as physical wellbeing under health and safety legislation. There is a legal requirement to assess the risk of stress-related ill-health arising from work activities and to take measures to control that risk.

Given that we spend so much of our time at work, the workplace is the ideal setting to promote mental health. One practical example of this is the work of Heron Bros Ltd, a construction company based in Draperstown. Recognising that mental health is an important factor in the wellbeing of their staff, they took a proactive approach to ensuring the good mental health of their staff.

Heron Bros Ltd was the first construction company in Northern Ireland to engage with AWARE, a leading mental health charity, on the delivery of the Mood Matters in the Workplace programme, which was delivered to site staff, Quantity Surveyors, and office staff.

Utilising this approach ensured that staff across the organisation benefited from an increased understanding of mental health, so that they could recognise the signs and symptoms of depression; they were then given techniques they could use to look after their mental health. Heron Bros did not shy away from this difficult issue, and they have further plans to work with AWARE on programmes for their construction workers who work overseas, recognising isolation and loneliness as a contributor to poor mental health. The leaders within the company have driven this initiative, which has been well received by staff and has, in turn, contributed to the overall health of the organisation.

What could my organisation be doing?

Ensure your organisation supports effective actions to enhance mental wellbeing. For mental health to flourish in an organisation, risk factors must be reduced and protective measures must be enhanced, including . . .

  • Creating a visible commitment to good management practices: develop a partnership approach between staff & management, and promote positive mental health & wellbeing within the workplace
  • Adopting and adhering to formal policies on stress and mental health through the development of a health and wellbeing policy
  • Encouraging a culture of openness in relation to mental-health issues and thus addressing stigma
  • Assessing the risk and potential causes of stress within your organisation
  • Offering interventions to promote mental wellbeing or to rehabilitate staff, which may include employee assistance programmes
  • Providing information on services offered in the community, eg, Support Groups and/or Training (both are provided by AWARE, which also offers Mood Matters in the Workplace and Mental Health First Aid)

Incorporating the above actions into your health and wellbeing strategy will help to promote a motivated and productive workforce with a positive sense of wellbeing. To help understand the current situation, Business in the Community is running the largest ever survey of employee mental health in the workplace. To take part in the survey, click here