Why the brain needs as much TLC as the body

Dr Keith Klintworth examines why we all need to take a proactive interest in our mental health, as we would our physical health

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Feb 07, 2019
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The NHS has set out that it wants to achieve parity of esteem between mental and physical health services, in terms of access, quality and funding. At the same time, Parliament is currently debating the potential for changing workplace Health & Safety legislation so that an employer’s responsibility explicitly covers the mental health as well as the physical health of their employees. 

This debate was initiated by a campaign from Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England. It wants to see first aid regulations amended to ensure that provision is made for mental health, as well as physical, first aid in the workplace.

If successful, this change will give working people access to mental health first aiders, as they currently do for physical first aiders.

Let’s talk physical & psychological

Statistics on the need for mental health support abound. But the long and the short of it is that busy, demanding 21st Century life demands this focus.

So, how can insurers, employers, intermediaries and society at large support this need?

We all talk about physical health. Every 10k is celebrated, minor pains, strains, coughs and colds are discussed at length. The vast majority of us are now cognisant of the impact of diet and exercise on health. That infamous old adage “a minute on the lips, a lifetime on the hips” springs to mind! So why is it – in spite of all the media and government attention over recent years – that mental health is so misunderstood and the very subject taboo for many.

Mental health vs Mental illness

Mental health is often mistakenly thought of as a measure of unhappiness, imbalance or even mental illness. On the latter, it’s important to point out that mental illness is a long-term condition: one that must be diagnosed as such by a qualified medical professional. Mental illnesses are many and varied but can include: bipolar disorder; panic attacks; depression; post-traumatic stress disorder.

This is a world away from “mental health”. Everyone has mental health. It’s a measure of the state of our minds and it lies along a continuum from health through issue to illness.

We all experience mental health issues at times and to varying degrees. Sleeplessness, changes in eating habits and increased alcohol consumption can, for example, all be signs of mental health issues although typically we may not think of them in this way.

Hidden cost of absence

But where we might take a day off work if we were suffering from a heavy cold, would we do the same if we were feeling less able to keep on top of our workload? Tired? Or feeling blue?

It’s not for workplaces to try to “fix” these issues. Each individual is responsible for their mental health and may need to seek professional help from time to time, but in the full knowledge that their workplace is understanding and supporting.

And therein lies the problem.

Time taken off for mental health issues represents the single biggest cost to UK businesses. It’s around £35 billion each year, working out at £1,300 per employee. And that’s just the absences that we know about.

A study conducted by Bauer Media, co-founders of the MHFA England campaign, found up to 50% of employees who take time off for their mental health tell their boss it’s for a different reason – meaning the true cost is hidden.

Workplaces, along with society, needs to start creating a culture of normality around mental health as we do around physical health.

The case for support

We need to get to a stage where open conversations are welcomed and signposting and support – whether via EAPs, virtual GPs, apps or wearables – is available, visible and trusted.

The case for investing in mental health in workplaces continues to grow. A recent study by Accenture showed employees working in an open, supportive culture around mental health were more than twice as likely to love their jobs and were more likely to still be working for the same employer in 12 months’ time.

Why wait for legislation?

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