Mental health awareness: spotting the signs and starting the conversation
Two in three managers feel confident promoting wellbeing, but less than half of staff think managers would spot their mental health problems.
For the last three years, we’ve been delivering our Workplace Wellbeing Index, a benchmark of best policy and practice when it comes to employers promoting good mental health among their employees.
This year, over 100 forward-thinking employers of different sizes and sectors took part in our Workplace Wellbeing Index – including Lendlease who were recognised with a Gold Award.
We have seen a seismic shift in how employers view workplace wellbeing. We’ve seen organisations move away from managing sickness absence purely on a reactive basis, to a more proactive and sensitive approach, making sure workplaces are doing all they can to tackle the work-related causes of poor mental health among their staff.
As a result, organisations are seeing happier, more engaged and productive staff who are less likely to need to take time off sick.
Despite this, in a survey of more than 44,000 people, Mind research indicates how common mental health problems are among staff – more than seven in ten employees (71 per cent) have experienced mental health problems in their lives, while over one in two (53 per cent) employees say they are affected by poor mental health in their current workplace.
Like physical health, we all have mental health and need to take care of it. Given how much of our lives are spent at work, it’s really important employers and managers take an active role in helping staff stay well.
What can businesses do?
Investing in staff wellbeing makes good business sense, when it comes to return on investment, but more importantly it’s better for all of us in wider society too. Poor mental health affects everyone differently, so there is no one-size-fits all approach to promoting wellbeing at work, but there are some helpful initiatives and underlying principles.
Offering free fruit, cycle to work schemes and subsidised fitness classes or gym membership are just a few examples of things that can make a difference to staff wellbeing.
But above all, employers should create environments where staff can talk openly about poor mental health at work, and know that if they do, they’ll be given support and understanding, rather than facing stigma and discrimination.
We all cope with pressure in different ways, however long working hours, excessive workload and poor working environments can all lead to unmanageable stress.
Small steps like encouraging a work/life balance are key. For example, at Mind we have a rule about no work emails between 8pm-8am. HR professionals have a responsibility to instil a culture where working overtime is the exception, not the norm, and where senior staff and managers set good examples by leaving their work at work.
Employers should also be making sure that managers are working with an understanding that what is going on in our personal life can have an impact on how we are at work.
If you notice a colleague or your employee is withdrawing or acting differently, having an open and sensitive conversation can be a good place to start in exploring if any support can be offered.
The majority of us experiencing mental health problems, want to work, and we can and do make a valuable contribution, but we might need a little extra support.
Taking a joined up approach
We cannot just look at the workplace in isolation. For example, half of people in receipt of disability benefit need this support due to their mental health, but currently the benefits system punishes people by cutting their support when they’re not able to do what’s asked of them.
This is counterintuitive as it tailspins people further from their goals of getting back into paid work.
Things like poor housing, being out of work, or having benefits cut off or changed all pile additional pressure on those of us already struggling with mental health.
A 2016 study by Mind found that 40 per cent of people with mental health problems who had attempted or considered suicide said that at least one of these social issues was a contributing factor. This is inexcusable.
This is why we need a more joined up approach to make sure that anyone experiencing a mental health problem can get the right support with any or all of these wider social factors as well as when we are at work.
Part of this is every employer’s moral duty to help close the disability employment gap, and recognise the value of recruiting and retaining a diverse and talented workforce, including those whose mental health may have prevented them working previously.
Culture change is hard, what steps can organisations take to support their employees?
Changing the culture of an organisation can’t happen overnight so it might be helpful to develop a plan that includes short-term, medium-term and long-term goals. Staff surveys are a great way of finding out where you’re doing well and where there is room to improve, so carrying out a survey could help you identify the priority areas.
It’s important to promote and advertise the initiatives you do have available so staff are aware about what support they can access.
Wellness Action Plans (WAPs) – available for free from Mind’s website – are useful tools to help facilitate conversations about mental health. Drawn up jointly by managers and staff, they can identify the unique triggers for poor mental health and what helps people stay well.
It’s also important for leaders to role-model healthy working habits and behaviours, like taking their proper breaks, debriefing after facing a challenging or traumatic situation and taking time off if they are unwell, physically or mentally. As well as putting practical support in place, training can also help to raise awareness and promote openness amongst staff.
Employers and employees can also access the Mental Health at Work website. This online portal was developed by Mind, with the support of the Royal Foundation, and allows all types of employers and employees to access free tools, advice and information – all in one place.
And what can we do to support each other at work?
Lots of people fear saying the wrong thing, and so say nothing at all. Even if you’re not sure, talk to the colleague you’re worried about, as staying silent is one of the worst things you can do. Try to adopt a sensitive, common-sense approach. The rules of thumb are:
Encourage people to talk – start by talking about general wellbeing, and let people know that they can talk to you if they need to. Remember everyone’s experience of mental health problems is different, so focus on the person, not the problem.
Avoid making assumptions – don’t try to guess what symptoms a co-worker might have and how these might affect their life or their ability to do their job – many people are able to manage their condition and perform their role to a high standard.
Respect confidentiality – remember mental health information is confidential and sensitive. Don’t pass on information unnecessarily – not least because this breach of trust could negatively impact someone’s mental health.
Even if they don’t want to speak about it at that time, you’ve still let them know you care and you’re there for them when the time is right. In addition, small gestures like thanking people for their work, making tea or coffee and asking about their plans outside work - can make a huge difference.
For more guidance from mental health charity Mind, explore their content series on workplace wellbeing.
Emma Mamo is Head of Workplace Wellbeing at Mind. Emma joined Mind in 2007 and, since 2010, has led Mind’s campaigning for mentally healthy workplaces - playing a pivotal role in thought leadership to position mental health in the workplace as a key priority for employers and Government.
Emma has led culture change through engagement with...