Thames Water has reduced work-related illness absence by more than 75 per cent in the last five years with the help of a mental health virtual reality (VR) training course.

The course is designed to allow the user to “become” the person suffering the ill-effects of negative mental health.

Karl Simons, chief health, safety and security officer, said the company’s technology has been “a revelation” in combating stress-related sickness.

He is now campaigning for all responsible businesses to manage mental health “in a positive and proactive way” with open conversations about how people are really feeling at work.

To mark the first day of Mental Health Awareness Week (14-18 May), which is run by the Mental Health Foundation (MHF), Simons, said: “Identifying and tackling mental health problems early can stop issues escalating and improve the chances of recovery. Workplaces, not only the NHS, should have a part to play in supporting this movement.

“Having a mental health awareness campaign for employees not only helps to support mental health at work but can also benefit our family and friends at home. We’ve evolved to have more and better conversations about how we are feeling, not just physically but also mentally, which has been a real breakthrough.”

Thames Water recently showcased its mental health virtual reality educational programme to many of the country’s major safety-critical employers, including the British Army, water companies and at the National Health and Safety Executives conference.

It has offered its virtual reality footage to all companies for free.

Research from the MHF shows 16 million people – a quarter of the population – experience a mental health problem each year. Poor mental health costs employers between £33 billion and £42 billion a year, with an annual cost to the UK economy of between £74 billion and £99 billion.

Thames Water was featured as a case study in the UK government’s independent review of mental health and employers by Lord Dennis Stevenson and Paul Farmer, called “Thriving at Work”, which was published last October. The company has more than 200 mental health first aiders across the business and offers free annual personal and confidential medical assessments for all employees.

Lord Stevenson said: “The approach being taken by Thames Water using virtual reality to improve mental health in the workplace is one of the most impressive and practical approaches that I came across when Paul Farmer and I were producing our report for the prime minister.”

What to read next