Why ‘keep calm and carry on’ is putting mental health at risk.

December 1, 2017    Ann Clarke     ,

A few years ago, the First World War slogan ‘keep calm and carry on’ came back into popular use with the discovery of an old war propaganda poster. It went on to become the phrase of the modern era as it adorned home accessories and tourist merchandise and became the foundation for countless new advertising creatives. However, while the poster slogan evoked nostalgia, it also re-awakened the idea of Great British stoicism and the ‘stiff upper lip’ – a very unhelpful idea in the face of the modern mental health epidemic.

Mental health is a growing concern for employers, particularly when better mental health in the workplace could save UK business up to £8 billion per year as a result of reduced presenteeism (amongst those who are ill) and absenteeism. Evidence suggests that 12.7% of all absences from work can be linked to mental health conditions and the number is increasing at an alarming rate (a 71% increase since 2011). Combined with a recent survey that highlights how few employees are willing to discuss their mental health issues with their employers for fear of judgement or reprisal, it’s clear that ‘putting on a brave face’ is stifling progress.

Even though it’s widely known that talking about anxieties and fears and seeking help is an important part of tackling mental health, the workplace has been slow to recognise its role in finding a solution.

For organisations striving to be good employers who are trying to attract and retain the very best talent, it’s important to recognise and embrace the mental health needs of a workforce. In doing so, these organisations will get the most out of their employees (energy, commitment and loyalty in particular), reduce the hefty and far-reaching costs associated with sickness and improve all-important productivity too.

One of the preliminary areas to consider in a bid to improve wellbeing is company culture – the personality, values, ethics, expectations and goals that unite a workforce in common endeavour. Positive, people-orientated and wellbeing-focused businesses will be the first to reduce mental health issues for their employees, by having a culture of respect, support and guidance in place.

The second part of addressing mental health requires breaking down the stigma attached to it, and that requires education. Education must be all-encompassing and span all seniorities in a business, from the board and senior directors right through to line managers and individual team members. It needs to focus on explaining the breadth of mental health issues and how common they are, as well as highlighting the importance of and personal value in seeking help and support when it’s needed. Education should also include formal training for those with people-management responsibility, equipping them with the tools and empathy needed to spot the signs of struggling employees and to support those affected with mental health issues.

Both of these steps are best considered in the context of a company’s wellbeing policy and as such should take a holistic view, spanning employees’ physical, emotional and mental needs.

For mental health issues, this might mean making sure employees know how to access on-site counselling services, putting a buddy-system in place to encourage employees to talk to each other or providing a quota of extra days off for mental health needs. In a broader context, this could also include ensuring employees have motivational workspaces that support the specifics of how they work, that they are given guidance on nutrition and fitness or that there’s a staff volunteering project in place for them to feel connected with their community.

Whatever the initiative, employees need to know that their wellbeing is important and that there is support in place. Effective signposting must be in place to ensure employees know what is available and how to access it. This can be achieved through company and team meetings, wellbeing information in staff handbooks, discussions with line managers, risk assessment questionnaires, seminars, workshops and internal communications. For mental health in particular, it’s imperative that employees feel empowered and able to ask for help without reprisal.

According to mental health charity MIND, approximately one in 4 people in the UK experience a mental health problem each year and in England 1 in every 6 people report experiencing anxiety and depression in any given week. Mental health is the disease of the modern day. Businesses willing to tackle the epidemic know that employees need to be nurtured, protected and supported just as much as they need to be energised and motivated, in order to be productive. After all, the latter can’t be achieved without first achieving the former.

‘Keep calm and carry on’ might capture the Great British spirit in times of war, but it has no place in a modern-day conversation about how we should care for ourselves and others. Mental health issues are legitimate health concerns and employers need to embrace their duty of care obligations and recognise that it’s in everyone’s interests to keep employees happy, healthy and able to work.

We think it’s time to re-think the ‘keep calm and carry on’ slogan altogether – perhaps it should be ‘Keep talking and carry on sharing’ instead.

To find out more about workplace wellbeing and how to write a wellbeing agenda, download our Workplace Wellbeing whitepaper, which is full of guidance and advice:



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