Mental health in the workplace is a serious issue not only when it comes to employee wellbeing, but the various knock-on effects for motivation and productivity. Three out every five employees (60%) have experienced mental health issues in the past year because of work, but only 13% felt able to talk with their line manager about the issue, according to one study.
Not only does this create serious problems for your employees, it can have a direct impact on the performance of your organisation. The mental health charity, Mind, puts the number of working days lost to stress and mental health at 70 million, while businesses are missing out on as much as £15.1 billion a year due to lower productivity.
Take this one step further and it’s clear that mental health in the workplace also has an impact on the economy. People with mental health problems contributed an estimated £226-billion to UK GDP in 2015 (12.1% the country’s economic output), which is nine times more than the cost of mental health problems to economic output.
Understanding the numbers is one thing, but how do you tackle the problem?
A three-pronged approach to mental health in the workplace
The same factors that affect employee engagement are intimately linked with the issue of mental health in the workplace. More specifically there are three key areas to focus on:
You need strong and well-informed leadership who know how to handle mental health issues, clear policies that make people aware of what support options are available, and a culture that makes people feel safe enough to confide in senior leadership and their peers.
That might not sound that straightforward, but we’ll explain how each of the areas listed above impacts mental health in the workplace, and provide a few actionable strategies that will put you on the path to building an organisation with mental health at its core.
Managers are the frontline defence for mental health
Training managers how to spot mental health problems and provide the right kind of support is an important part of addressing mental health in the workplace, but it misses out on the more holistic aspects of employee wellbeing which also feed into culture.
One survey highlighted cultural traits that made them feel safe enough to seek support, including a safe and open environment where mistakes were allowed to happen as a way of learning, and where people felt they were treated like people, rather than part of a machine.
Instead of relying on training alone, it’s just as effective to encourage positive relationships in the workplace – especially between managers and employees. In fact, research has shown that many people consider having a good relationship with line managers as one of the most important aspects to consider when discussing mental health in the workplace.
Managers who embody a healthy work-life balance can act as a catalyst for the rest of the company, reinforcing positive behaviours and employee wellbeing practices. If you’re in a management position, here are a few things you could try:
- Take a lunch break, and encourage your employees to do the same. You could also organise the occasional team lunch, which can help with getting to know people.
- When you leave work, tell your employees to do the same. Having enough time to decompress and maintain a social life outside of work goes a long way.
- Introduce yourself. Leading by example is an important part of being a good manager, so take the time to get to know your team – which also makes it easier to know when someone is having difficulties at work.
How to make mental health a part of your culture
Policy on its own isn’t enough to stimulate change in the workplace. According to research from the Mental Health Foundation, only 25% of respondents believed that their company policies and procedures supported employee mental health, while many of the people in the survey were unaware of their workplace policy regarding mental health.
Another problem with relying on policies to address mental health issues in the workplace is that they’re often used only in a crisis. With many policies being overly complex and time-consuming to read, it’s often difficult to implement them on a day-to-day basis.
While specific policies related to stress and mental health need to be in place, it’s often much more effective to look for ways to accommodate people with mental health concerns through wider company policies.
Remote working as a mental health support system
One policy that can go to work for mental health day in and day out is remote working. Not only does it give people the flexibility to manage their workload, it enables those with mental health concerns to fit self-care around their job, especially those receiving specific treatment.
Remote working on its own can make a big difference, but combined with flexible working it gives people endless options for looking after their mental health. Someone with anxiety may prefer to come into the office earlier (and leave earlier) so they can avoid the busy morning commute. Or how about someone who needs to book a last-minute therapy session? They can work remotely in the morning, attend therapy in the afternoon, and either continue working from home afterwards, or make up the time over the next few days.
These approaches to remote and flexible working have been shown to improve employee engagement, so why not also apply them to help people with mental health issues?
Cultivating strong peer-to-peer relationships
Loneliness is more than an emotional issue, it makes it harder to regulate ourselves and can lead to self-destructive behaviour such as overeating and poor sleep habits. This can be especially dangerous for people living with mental health issues, especially as self-care is often the primary strategy for staying mentally healthy.
Working in an organisation which discriminates against mental health problems, or makes it difficult for employees to build meaningful relationships with each other can reinforce this loneliness, make it harder to speak out and lead to people suffering in silence.
As we’ve already discussed, managers play an important role in maintaining open lines of communication and making sure their team feels comfortable talking to them about personal problems, especially when it comes to mental health and stress.
Other approaches can include setting up internal support groups where people can turn to their peers for advice, hosting internal events around mental health and what support is available from the company, or inviting external organisation to run talks and workshops.
Mental health needs to be ingrained in employee wellbeing programs
In any one year, more than one in four people in the general population and one in six workers is likely to be suffering from a mental health condition. Even if you can’t spot someone with a mental health issue, you can’t afford to ignore mental health in the workplace.
There are three ways to support people with mental health concerns:
- Build a culture that supports mental health and makes it easy for people to seek help when (if not before) they need it.
- Commitment from senior leadership and training for line managers to help identify problems and provide the right kind of support for their employees.
- Mental health policies in place across the business, including remote working and flexible hours that give employees a way to manage their workload.
Most companies are happy to offer their employees yoga once a week, or subsidise gym memberships, so why not include therapy sessions? Often it’s the stigma surrounding mental health that makes it seem like an impossible obstacle to overcome.
If you think about mental health in the same way you do exercise and wellbeing, suddenly it wouldn’t seem like such a daunting task to ask your employees how they’re feeling, what the company can do support them and how new policies can be implemented.
Allow people to share their experiences of mental health issues, encourage people to become “mental health champions” within the business and make sure your managers not only understand the significance of mental health, but stand up for it as well.