Although mental health in the workplace is becoming less of a taboo subject, there are still scores of business owners and employees unable to be heard or fearful of coming forwards. The David Brent method (Ricky Gervais – The Office) of callously discussing workplace mental health still happens, but thankfully those managers are a dying breed. If you subscribe to one of the Buckland Principals (not Bourbons & Morons!), namely Head Down Ears Up, then you’ll have the luxury of being able to focus intensely on work whilst detecting subtle cues of psychological distress from others. Discreetly but casually addressing the signs in conversation and finding appropriate tutelage is a skill 99% of managers and directors struggle to grasp. Acting as the infantry, cavalry and infirmary of their enterprise, small business owners are not immune from their own mental health issues. When they pay the price of late payment with a mental health crisis, their business makes a B-line to the nearest iceberg.
Access to Work
Every business owner and employee has a right to mental health support, although few know how or where to go. The little-known government-funded Access to Work scheme is designed to do just that. Those in employment can receive nine months of free mental health support and guidance from two providers www.able-futures.co.uk and www.remploy.co.uk. Both can be accessed without having a formal mental health diagnosis. In some circumstances, an Access to Work grant will pay for adaptations and personal assistance. With or without Able Futures and Remploy, your GP can still diagnose and prescribe things like CBT, SSRIs, SNRIs, and Benzodiazepines.
Construction and Suicide
Talking about suicide is never easy. It’s not like passing comments on the weather or making small talk with a colleague. That difficulty is more pronounced in the construction industry, where poor mental health takes more lives than workplace accidents. According to the ONS, in the period 2011-2017, the industry lost 1,400 workers to suicide. More recent preliminary data suggests the suicide rate increased during the pandemic. For some, work is an escape from home life, and when things go wrong on-site, the internal implosion of emotions creates a crisis in which ‘resigning from life’ seems the only solution. For small construction business owners, the stress of late payment, site issues, staff venting, and contract juggling can be a bridge too far. Construction firm owners know better than most that when their business takes a hit, they can’t just go get another a contact to make payroll that week. In times gone by, the construction industry had an unwritten rule of leaving your troubles in the van. In modern times it has acknowledged the travesty of suicides and embraced the need for a cultural shift towards mental health awareness. The BMH framework www.buildingmentalhealth.net aims to standardise access to mental health throughout the construction industry with a charter. The Lighthouse Construction Industry charity www.lighthouseclub.org provides psychological, physical, and financial support for workers and their families. As momentum builds and awareness increases, other support networks and initiatives are nearing launch.
According to the latest Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) research, a staggering one in three small business owners attribute their 2020-2021 mental health decline to the pandemic. The same statistic for disabled business owners was notably higher at two in five. Out of the 1.8 million small business owners reporting a decline, nearly a quarter said they are still experiencing conditions such as anxiety and depression. Community project Leapers (which provides mental health support for freelancers and the self-employed) found that 63% of small businesses have seen an increase in late or non-payment by customers since the pandemic hit. The number of days an invoice is outstanding (DSO) has increased across the board since 2020. Although most industries and sectors are on their way to a tentative recovery, the effects of late payment are still being felt throughout supply chains. The average cost per business of staff absences attributable to mental health exceeded £3,500 in 2021. That is a huge amount for conditions that easily go unnoticed. Just because you can’t see mental health doesn’t mean it is not there.
Kings & Queens of Cortisol!
In previous blogs, we’ve mentioned Brexid (Brexit and Covid), and at the risk of repetition, both events have caused social and economic upheaval. In that near-perfect storm, business owners and their staff faced unprecedented uncertainty, which by default increases anxiety. Little was certain, and job security was a privilege. A handful of industries profited from the pandemic, whilst the majority saw consumer and commercial demand plummet. SMEs were least insulated against the downturn – worrying about customers not paying, about paying employees, suppliers and overheads. Supply chain bottlenecks and component shortages meant businesses couldn’t get the stock to sell, and when they did, prices were inflated. SMEs faced (and still do) inflation through uncapped commercial energy, increased raw material prices, labour shortage and higher wage demands to name but a few. The economy is once again slowing. Furlough is gone. Bounce Back, and Business Interruption loan repayments have started. The moratorium on commercial evictions has expired. When stresses over money at work cause conflict at home, it’s difficult to step back and extinguish the lit blue touch paper of relationship jeopardy. Small business owners on the front line of economic reality are more familiar with cortisol (aka the stress hormone) now than in any other peacetime era.
Mental health is not a pandemic – facemasks, vaccinations and social distancing don’t work. It’s not a social trend where city and countryfolk feign symptoms to be cool. And it’s not a badge of honour like ASBO’s first was. Without meaning to understate or trivialise other serious medical conditions – cancer diagnoses increased sharply with the advent of screening and social awareness. In the same light, with mental health coming into community consciousness, there are individuals being reached who would otherwise have remained undiagnosed. Just as HIV patients are no longer the ‘lepers’ of modern society because community education and enlightenment have removed the stigma, those with mental health challenges are no longer social pariahs. Perhaps this debt recovery obsessed author is reaching a bit too far in suggesting such parallels, but the idea of taking a condition out of the darkness and into the light is what matters here. Remember the lyrics “Hello Darkness, my old friend” from Simon & Garfunkel in 1964 and Disturbed in 2015? Amongst swathes of society, The Sound of Silence is an anthem about mental illness, which is just as relevant now as it was 58 years ago. In a nutshell – the occurrence and increase of mental health issues have been accelerated by the pandemic, but the unspoken afflictions of men, women, children, employees, contractors and business owners existed long before Patient Zero.