‘Let’s tackle mental health stigma’

Can our belief in “Yorkshire grit” be more of a curse than a blessing?

This provocative question is being posed at a conference today which challenges employers to tackle the stigma associated with mental illness. It’s feared that too many companies foster a culture which believes individuals should simply “toughen up” when faced with mental health problems, which makes it much harder for people to seek help.

Unsympathetic bosses could be harming Britain’s economy, according to research. Mental ill-health costs the UK economy an estimated £70bn per year, according to a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Around 300,000 people per year move from work to benefits, with 40 per cent of new claimants for Employment and Support Allowance experiencing mental health difficulties.

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Today, 150 employers will be asked to make a pledge to reach out and support people with mental health problems at a conference organised by mental health charity Leeds Mind.

Four speakers, including a lawyer, professor, mortgage advisor and an accountant, will talk about their personal experience of returning to work after mental ill-health. They will tell the audience about the benefits of supporting staff and planning a return to work. The conference, which is being held at law firm Eversheds’ office at Bridgewater Place, will also cover masculinity, mental health and the workplace. A new initiative, Mindful Employers: Achieving Positive Mental Health at Work in a Challenging Economy, has emerged from Leeds Mind’s partnership with local firms, which is part of a nationwide drive to improve support networks for people with mental health problems.

Sally Hall, Leeds Mind’s Mindful Employer coordinator, said: “Discussions with the Leeds Mindful Employer Network have identified that there is a ‘Yorkshire Grit’ approach in some workplaces which can make it more difficult to create an open culture around mental health. Some workplaces have an attitude of ‘it’ll be right’ or ‘just toughen up’ which can prevent people from seeking support in a timely way and may actually prolong sickness absence when employees are experiencing mental health difficulties. This can particularly be an issue for men, who may feel less able to open up to managers and colleagues about their mental health.’

Mind has established a Leeds Mindful Employer Network, which includes more than 70 local employers. Mind has also encouraged employers to sign the Mindful Employer charter, which is a set of aims for organisations wishing to take a positive attitude towards mental health. Since July 2013 the number of signatories in Leeds has almost doubled, from 21 to 39.

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Issues of masculinity and Yorkshire Grit will be touched on by Alan White, Professor of Men’s Health at Leeds Beckett University. Mr White said he was concerned about the high rates of suicide among middle aged men, which could stem from a reluctance to talk about emotional problems.

He added: “We should be reaching out to them.”

Other participants include Robert Manson, head of occupational health and wellbeing at supermarket chain Morrisons. Morrisons was the first major retailer to sign up to the Mindful Employer charter, which now has 1,200 signatories across the UK.

“We’re still on a journey, but this is one of the top priorities from a health and well-being agenda,’’ said Mr Manson.