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Mental health in the workplace

Workplace mental health has never been more important. In January 2020, poor mental health was costing UK employers £42 ­– £45 billion a year. That’s no small sum. And then there was the global pandemic and the disruption it caused. A Business in the Community report from October 2020 found that 41% of employees have experienced mental health symptoms caused, or worsened, by work over the previous year.

But it’s not all bad news. Mental health awareness is growing, with employers increasingly realising the importance of prioritising the mental health and wellbeing of their staff. And as a result, employees feel more supported.

Employee drinking a cup of coffee at his workplace

For a start, it affects the bottom line. Providing mental health support makes good financial sense, with every £1 invested resulting in a return of £5 in terms of reduced absence, presenteeism and staff turnover.

Then there are the other benefits that come from creating a supportive working environment. For one, happy staff are more productive. And they can act as ambassadors for your organisation, flying the flag and convincing others that it’s a good place to work.

It can be tempting to leap into action and implement mental health and wellbeing initiatives left, right and centre. But first, you need to understand what policies, practices and attitudes are active within your organisation. How supported do your staff feel? Where are the gaps?

A mental health questionnaire is a great place to start. Survey staff about their mental health, the support you currently provide and how openly they feel they can talk about mental health. You could even ask for their ideas and suggestions. This will give you a clear picture of the support available and how it meets employees’ needs. Use this to determine what support, policies and initiatives you need to introduce.

The UK government’s Thriving at Work report presents six recommendations for how employers can support mental health. It’s a useful resource, and one we’ve drawn on for this article. The first recommendation is to produce, implement and communicate a mental health at work plan.

Your plan could include initiatives and practices to promote good mental health, encourage open conversations and raise awareness about mental health. For example, you could provide:

  • access to mental health, emotional support or counselling helplines
  • workshops to improve mental health
  • training to teach managers and others to identify the signs of mental health distress
  • wellbeing weeks, or specific times or days in the week where staff can take part in wellbeing-related activities
  • access to physical exercise equipment or classes, or opportunities to incorporate physical activity into the working day, for example through “walk and talk” meetings
  • mental health leave
  • workplace mental health first aid training

Another key part of supporting mental health is to modify or introduce policies that impact mental health. This aligns with the fourth Thriving at Work recommendation, which is to provide your employees with good working conditions. Consider for instance whether your organisation’s leave policy explicitly includes periods of absence for mental health issues. Or whether you have a policy that addresses mental health issues in the workplace.

Then again, companies can’t simply publish a policy and leave it there—they need to be seen to walk the talk. And this is especially important for those in managerial positions. Because in Deloitte’s 2020 survey, only 44% of those surveyed would feel comfortable talking to a line manager about their mental health. In fact, fear of discrimination and feelings of shame are among the top reasons people give for not telling their colleagues about their mental health problems.

How can you overcome this? Senior management needs to set the scene. Having a senior leader champion your mental health initiatives is a very powerful way to break down stigma and gain traction across the organisation. This means promoting and demonstrating work-life balance. And it means talking openly about mental health in the workplace, including issues and the support available. Because having open discussions about mental health will help staff feel more comfortable about sharing any mental health challenges they’re experiencing.

Mental health is just as important as physical health. And in fact, according to the new guidance from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), UK employers now need to consider offering Mental Health First Aid training, as well as First Aid at Work training. Mental health first aiders can be a useful way of ensuring mental health support is provided organisation-wide. These voluntary positions see staff members act as points of contact for concerns or matters related to mental health. They’re trained to support people experiencing mental health issues or emotional distress and can signpost them to professional support.

We’ve looked at several ways that organisations can support and promote employee mental health and wellbeing. But not all of these initiatives are suited to the remote working environment many of us find ourselves in. What’s more, these new ways of working can actually make some problems worse. Even before the pandemic, the prevalence of technology saw staff finding it increasingly difficult to disconnect. And now, with the line between home and office increasingly blurred, and pandemic-related anxiety on the rise, this becomes even more challenging. So what can you do to counteract this?

Some organisations organise regular team catch ups via video calls. Often, they’re used to pass important information and make decisions, as well as being a way to stay connected. And yet, while this approach may work for some, for others, video calls can be stressful and anxiety inducing. So make sure you think carefully about the best way to communicate, pass on information and meet with your team, rather than automatically making everything a video meeting. And why not share these tips for reducing video call-related stress with your team.

Make sure you monitor mental health in your workplace on a regular basis. You could send out the same mental health questionnaire at regular intervals. This way, you’ll be able to see if the changes you’ve made are helping. You can assess what’s improved and identify any issues that need addressing.