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Pharma’s Internal Duty of Care

Updated: Dec 16, 2019

Words by Kirstie Turner

Problematic workspaces can wreak havoc with our mental health: a subject that has been rocketed into the forefront of many conversations. The World Health Organization (WHO) have now classified burnout as a diagnosable disease. But there is still a long way to go to properly tackle the issues. Pharma have a duty to look after their employees’ mental as well as physical health by making responsible choices in their internal work environments. Identifying the stakeholders who care about this as well as solutions to cleanse unhealthy work cultures is pivotal.

Part of the problem is that people are afraid to talk about their mental health

To drive conversations around the highly complex environment of mental health, some companies and charities are collaborating on initiatives, such as Rethink Mental Illness and Mind’s ‘Time to Change’. This campaign aims to end discrimination and stigma surrounding mental health; employers have seen a 95% positive impact from the initiative. A host of pharma companies, including Novartis and Lundbeck, have signed the pledge to commit to making changes in their approach to mental health in the workplace and to ensure that employees feel supported. The initiative works with these companies to put an action plan in place, and while some companies have committed, it is critical that the whole industry follows suit.

Once they have pledged, pharma companies can begin to face some of the problems that are damaging to mental health: a concoction of unhealthy cultures, lack of personal space through open-plan offices and hot desking, and impossible timeframe expectations are all weighing down on employees’ mental wellbeing. But employees are not always in a position to open up about these challenges, as Kathy Delaney, Global Chief Creative Officer, Publicis Health, reminds us: “Part of the problem is that people are afraid to talk about their mental health.”

It is important to recognise why campaigns such as this are so important for pharma to consider. There are three main stakeholders who are calling for better recognition and treatment of mental health. Katrina Gay, National Director, Strategic Partnerships, National Alliance on Mental Illness, outlines the first: “Employees are saying that mental health is important in the workplace.” Mental health is a significant determinant of employee satisfaction and happiness, which can impact work quality and productivity.

Consumers want to see evidence that the brands they care about care about this cause

“The second lever that is being pulled, and the direction this is coming from, is the finance department”, says Gay. Mental health can cause absenteeism from work and is the leading cause of sickness from work in the UK. On average, this costs £1,305 per employee every year. Gay continues: “In many cases, people are feeling like they have to leave the work environment to take care of their own mental health.” It makes good business sense to take care of these employees from a finance point of view to reduce absenteeism costs and to improve productivity.

The third stakeholder calling for better employee care is consumers. Gay discusses the rise of mental health in the list of consumers’ top issues: “Mental health was not even in the top 10 a couple of years ago; now, it is in the top 3. It’s taken a gigantic leap where consumers want to see evidence that the brands they care about care about this cause.” We are seeing an increasing trend as consumers hold social responsibility in high esteem; addressing mental health openly can help pharma to improve their trustworthiness as an industry.

While some companies have taken the pledge, there are still changes that must be made to create a better environment for employees. Delaney suggests that one key solution is enabling self-care: “Open office environments and all the different exposures that we have all day long make it really important that we find processes and ways to take moments where we just clear everything out of our heads and we take a moment to take care of ourselves.” It is critical that employees can ask for time for self-care when needed and that mental health takes precedent, just as physical health does.

Mental health needs to be a priority for all industries and the conversations surrounding this are finally in flow. Pharma must ensure they are part of this important discussion, embracing the small changes in the workplace that can have a huge impact. While traction is being made, there is still a long journey ahead for complete transparency of mental health and removal of stigma. With an influx of employees experiencing work-related mental health, pharma’s demonstration of a commitment to change is a big step in the right direction.

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