Alan Burke

Property Minds Matter | Mental health as a workplace asset

We all have mental health, just as we do physical health. There are challenges in our personal and professional lives that can harm our mental health – a circumstance I have experienced first-hand, writes Alan Burke. Not only did my experience have a profound psychological impact on me but it also impacted, directly and indirectly, on my colleagues and, ultimately, my work.  

Research carried out by the Mental Health Foundation in 2016 found that an estimated 8.6 million people aged 16 or older in the UK were affected by a common mental health problem such as depression, anxiety or stress. There is an increasing body of evidence that suggests that in the UK levels of depression, in particular, are rising.

Tackling poor mental health is one of the big personal, and personnel, issues of our time and I feel the property industry should be a leader in the field given the fact that it is fundamentally a “people” business which relies heavily on the performance of individuals to achieve results.

‘Overload creep’ is a major factor facing the current day workforce. Due to advances in technology, work is no longer restricted to the workplace. Smart phones in particular allow employees to be contactable 24/7. As the office is now in the palm of our hands, it is harder and harder to escape work completely. I suspect we can all relate to this.

Depression, anxiety and stress are often described as “equal opportunities beasts”; that is to say they can strike anybody at any time whatever their status in life. Some 75% of the professional workforce are reported to feel that they are expected to be “always on” and available for work. The associated levels of anxiety this causes significantly increases stress levels and the likelihood that staff will leave their job. High staff turnover and absenteeism at all levels of seniority disrupts good business. This is as true in the property industry as any other.

Thankfully, there is a growing awareness by some enlightened employers of the importance of good mental health in the workplace, although this is not by any means universal. I was lucky in that when I experienced my own mental health crisis I was surrounded by understanding work colleagues and friends. I appreciate that this is unlikely to be the case for everybody suffering from a mental health issue, indeed, common causes of people not disclosing their problems are fear of discrimination, shame or being classified as a failure.

In my experience, disclosure of a mental health issue in the workplace is key to its management and ultimately a first step towards recovery. These things cannot be fought in solitude. Facing up to issues early can prevent them from escalating – I wish I had confronted my own issues sooner than I did.

The workplace of the future is going to be increasingly people-centric, and property organisations competing for talent, and looking to hold on to that talent, need to respond by being more supportive of their staff than ever before.

The acquisition, engagement and retention of the best performing people will become more important as a source of competitive advantage. For employers this means paying more attention to the mental health of their staff.

We need to create a culture in the workplace in which mental health is valued; where, for those who have problems, disclosure is encouraged and support is present. To achieve this business leaders need to demonstrate commitment to mental health as an asset of the organisation, and one that is critical to achieving business results.

Leaders need to feel that investing in mental health is a valuable use of their time and I would urge those that are not currently doing so to start immediately for the benefit of themselves as well as their employees. Listen to what people aren’t saying, read between the lines or set up regular staff mental health checks. Perhaps even nominate a workplace mental health ambassador?

“Depression is the most unpleasant thing I have ever experienced… It is that absence of being able to envisage that you will ever be cheerful again. The absence of hope. That very deadened feeling, which is so very different from feeling sad.”

J.K.Rowling


Property Minds Matter is a series of articles in which Alan Burke explores mental health in the property sector and how it can be improved, based on his own experience and struggles during 30 years in the industry.

Alan is a surveyor and former development director who has specialised in the identification and delivery of major projects and urban regeneration initiatives over a 30-year period. He’s worked for PwC, the Homes & Communities Agency, Langtree, Bruntwood, and Ask Real Estate. He now runs his own consulting business which offers property, regeneration, development and funding advice to clients in both the public and private sectors, and is also a mental health ambassador for Lionheart, the charity for RICS professionals.

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