Taking a whole systems approach – musculoskeletal and mental health

Louise Aston, Business in the Community Wellbeing Director, describes the interrelation between mental and physical health. 


Last week Business in the Community launched a suite of new toolkits in association with Public Health England, building on the success of our Mental Health Toolkit for Employers. The suite tackles the two major causes of days lost to sickness absence, musculoskeletal disorders (MSK) and mental ill health. MSK leads to 30.6m days lost, costing £100bn a year, and one in eight of the working age population report having an MSK problem. Meanwhile, mental health costs the UK economy £70bn a year and 15.2m days are lost each year due to stress, anxiety and depression.

By taking a ‘whole systems, whole person’ approach, these interlinked toolkits consolidate best employer practice and are aligned to freely available resources. Given the confusing amount of information out there on mental health and MSK, these interactive toolkits make it easy for employers to implement best employer practice and are relevant to all employers regardless of size, sector or where you are on your journey. All the toolkits follow a similar road map, include expert comment, great resources and a collection of case studies.

I particularly wanted to mention our Suicide Prevention and Crisis management in the event of a suicide toolkits, which have been published to coincide with new Office for National Statistics analysis of deaths from suicide by occupational group. Although suicide is relatively rare, it’s still over two-and-a-half times more likely to happen than a road accident, and one in five adults say they have thought about taking their own life at some point. That’s why, even though suicide remains a highly taboo topic, it’s vital that responsible employers take it seriously and ensure they have protocols in place around prevention and postvention. Doing so could potentially save lives.

The suicide postvention toolkit is particularly groundbreaking as it is the first of its kind for employers. It emphasises continuity planning about if the worst happens in a similar context to a physical disaster and the importance of communication, particularly during the first critical 48 hours. I would also like to congratulate the employers who have contributed to this toolkit and spoken out about this difficult topic, particularly PwC following their tragic high-profile case last spring. 

We know that there is an inextricable link between physical and mental health. For example, stress can manifest itself as MSK disorders, whilst an MSK issue can result in sufferers experiencing depression. And whilst mental health is stilled not talked about in many workplaces – our Mental Health at Work survey found only 11% of employees discussed a recent mental health problem with their manager – there is also a stigma around talking about MSK issues and a fear of disclosure. We hope that these toolkits will help to end this culture of silence, enable employees to manage problems, create more open workplace cultures and increasingly put mental health on a parity with physical health in the workplace. We also hope to save lives.

Employers can take simple, positive steps to achieving these changes through our three calls to action:

  • Talk: break the culture of silence that surrounds mental health by taking the Time to Change Employer’s Pledge
  • Train: invest in mental health literacy for all employees and Mental Health First Aid Training to support line manager capability
  • Take Action: introduce protocols for suicide prevention and postvention in your workplace, and ask staff about their experiences at work to identify areas that can be improved.

I would like to thank Public Health England, Samaritans and the Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Alliance and Samaritans for their support, expertise and input into the creation of the toolkits.