Mental Health Awareness Week: How to support mental health at work

Oliver · 07 Nov

The human brain is a complicated thing. So bafflingly complex that even in today’s scientifically enlightened age there are still wide gaps in our understanding of the organ. However, as HR focuses its attention on wellbeing initiatives, employers might be surprised by the amount they can do to manage mental health issues at work.

The Government’s recent Thriving at Work report unearthed the true scale of the UK’s mental health problem. Perhaps the most startling finding is that 300,000 workers lose their jobs each year due to mental health issues. The report puts the cost of this, combined with lost productivity and performance through mental ill health, at £42bn a year for UK employers.

“The human cost of failing to address mental health in the workplace is clear,” says Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of the charity Mind and co-author of the report. “Every employer in the UK has a responsibility to support employees with mental health problems and promote the mental wellbeing of their entire workforce.”

Indeed, mental health has been a taboo subject for too long – although signs suggest this is beginning to change. The stigma is being lifted in part by the various high profile people who have recently spoken out about their experiences with mental health, and the groundbreaking work of a growing number of charity organisations.

Now employee wellbeing is firmly on HR’s agenda.

Our heightened alertness to the issue highlights the need for manager training. According to further research conducted by Mind, 56% of employers want to do more to improve staff wellbeing but feel they lack the right training or guidance. Addressing the issues requires a knowledge of how it has arisen.

What's behind the rise in work-related mental health issues?

Trends in employee mental wellbeing have headed in the wrong direction in recent decades. Undoubtedly our willingness to report such issues has played a large role in this incline, but it’s also clear that a number of factors unique to 21st century life are taking their toll.

Consider, for one, the extinction of the job for life model. As far as those working in the service industries are concerned, progressing a career and making ends meet means being flexible enough to move to where the opportunities are.

Shorter tenures are compounded by a number of present-day challenges. The proliferation of technology has led to a problematic ‘always on’ culture; annually increasing commute times are eating into our private lives; and the number of people with diabetes has more than doubled in the last twenty years.

Fortunately the rise of progressive HR strategies and a wider societal openness to discuss sensitive issues provides an opportunity for employers to address mental health issues through operational practices and wellness benefits.

How to manage mental wellbeing at work

Provisions for mental health issues at work need to be communicated top-down. Leaders should promote a culture of openness and visibility around mental health, making it a pillar of their overall engagement and benefit strategy. With this environment in place, those leading the change can take direction from Mind’s three-pronged approach to managing mental health in the workplace.

1. Promote the mental wellbeing of all your staff

According to Thomsons Online Benefits’ UK Employee Benefits Watch 2016/17 report, companies that undertake a preventative approach to mental wellbeing see significantly higher levels of employee engagement and satisfaction. Leading by example, managers should support sensible working hours, encourage employees to take lunch breaks and annual leave, and to recuperate after busy periods. Benefits should focus on the financial and emotional – as well as the mental and physical – wellbeing of their employees.

2. Tackle the cause of work-related mental health problems

Employers should regularly monitor and assess the mental health of their people, either through company-wide employee surveys or line manager check-ins. Survey data can be used to establish wellbeing benefits and strategies, while one-to-one feedback allows managers to take positive action on an individual level.

3. Support staff who are experiencing mental health problems

Mind estimates that one in six workers is dealing with a mental health problem, yet less than a quarter of managers have received any form of mental health training. Organisations should have clear policies on workplace adjustments for those suffering anxiety, stress or depression. Any adjustments to the employee’s role should, of course, be discussed and agreed with them, but often the most effective changes are of attitude, expectation or communication on the line manager’s part.

Employee wellbeing needs to be central to HR’s overall benefits strategy. It’s time for employers to recognise their responsibility, and focus on their employees’ emotional, financial, physical and mental wellbeing. This goes beyond altruism – employee wellbeing is now imperative for the economic stability of an organisation.

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