In an industry facing considerable pressure in regulatory and compliance, patent expiry and pipeline growth, market access, payer and reimbursement challenges, in an industry whose purpose is to ease the pain and suffering of its patients, the enormity of the burden upon employees in the pharmaceutical sector every day is palpable. Many are working long hours at a heavy personal cost in order to deliver on this promise to patients.

The financial cost of mental ill health in the UK is estimated at £105bn, more than 3 times the £30.4bn contribution the pharmaceutical sector makes to the UK economy. The industry employs in the region of 73,000 people in the UK and with 1 in 6 people suffering mental ill health at any given time in the UK, statistically over 12,000 pharmaceutical employees will be directly affected right now.

There are many events where mental health in the workplace is discussed and solutions debated, with employees and former employees standing to tell their stories in the hope of breaking the stigma. Speakers are from the public sector, third sector, finance, construction, legal but it is rare to have the pharmaceutical sector involved. This will change on 20th November with GSK as the Founder Partner of This Can Happen, a major conference set up by Jonny Benjamin MBE and Neil Laybourn,

During this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week social media was a primary communication channel, and encouragingly a handful of pharmaceutical companies’ UK twitter accounts referred to this important annual event.

With key sponsorship from senior leadership, Novartis signed the Time to Change pledge in May which now takes pride of place above the entrance as you enter their building in Frimley. Erica Cassin, HR Director at Novartis UK speaks about their approach to employee mental health; “We have undertaken a full review” Cassin says, “and are implementing a clear pathway so that employees can understand the support they have available to them if they find themselves in need of it”. This was developed in liaison with employees to mirror a similar support programme Novartis has in cancer. “We must recognise that recovery from mental ill health can take considerable time,” says Cassin. “And it’s our vision to eliminate workplace mental health stigma and discrimination.” In order to deliver on that vision Novartis have cohorts of mental health champions whose role it is to promote and advocate awareness in this area to support their commitment to the pledge.

In October 2017 Deloitte published Mental health and employers: The case for investment. Supporting study for the Independent Review, which contained their research into activities delivering along a spectrum from awareness and proactive mental health support to reactive supports, and demonstrated the significant return on investment that could be achieved at the preventative end (up to 8:1) compared to the reactive stage (up to 5:1).

Sanofi have been running a wellbeing and resilience initiative for 5 years and as a direct result have seen significant returns with stress absence reducing almost to zero in this time. Driven by an increase in stress related absences at a time when the site was rapidly expanding, Sanofi realised that change was needed. Jackie Griffiths, HR Director describes the programme: “We implemented a modular training approach which gave employees and line mangers the skills, tools and techniques to identify and then manage their personal wellbeing and that of others in the organisation.” Griffiths highlights that “an important aspect of these programmes were self-support group discussions, established to create a supportive, cross functional network across site allowing managers to discuss, share and resolve common issues. Regular access to confidential 1:1 coaching was also a fundamental element of the programme”. With such compelling results in hand Griffiths’ advice to other pharma companies would be that “it is the mindset that you bring to the challenges that you face that makes all the difference – change takes time so have patience, keep initiatives flexible and voluntary and advocacy will build as the journey progresses”.

LEO Pharma was also active on Twitter in May and alongside awareness initiatives around mental health, it may also have identified a potential expectation of pharma companies in this space by tackling head on the issue of mental ill health associated with conditions it is treating pharmacologically. In the summer it launched a campaign on Instagram where psoriasis sufferers talk openly about the link between this condition and their mental wellbeing.

It is encouraging to see pharmaceutical companies putting their mark publicly on this agenda, especially as they play a fundamental role in the wellbeing of our society. Now is the time to actively work more holistically to support the mental health of employees and patients alike.

Steve Hoblyn is a former executive director, HR for Astellas Pharma Europe, now advocate, trainer and speaker in workplace mental health.