With one in four people affected by mental health issues every year*, you might think that businesses would be fully equipped to support the mental health needs of their employees.
However, less than a third of line managers are trained to deal with mental health issues, according to research by the CIPD. Alongside this is the continuous battle to shift the stigma that’s attached to mental health and make it less of a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.
“While we’re certainly making progress in being more open about mental health, it’s still a major issue,” explains Dr Ali Haggett, former Research Fellow at the University of Exeter and a specialist in the history of psychiatry and mental illness.
Supporting mental health in the workplace isn’t just essential when it comes to looking after the wellbeing of your employees; it’s also in your business’ interest. Presenteeism relating to mental health costs employers £15.1 billion every year and mental illness is the primary cause of long-term sickness in the UK.
So, what are the steps that organisations can take to support their employees’ mental health needs in the workplace?
1. Have an open culture – from the top down
To encourage your employees to talk about their mental health, you should lead from the top of your organisation down.
“If you have an open culture at work, people will be more comfortable,” says Dr Ali Haggett. “To a certain extent it’s not just down to the workplace; in society in general there is still a stigma attached to mental illness so I think we all have a personal responsibility in our day-to-day lives to try and overcome that, bit-by-bit.”
At an organisational level, there are plenty of things you can do. The Time to Change pledge is a great way of auditing your company’s approach to mental health in the workplace and creating an action plan. This shows your staff that you mean what you say and you’re committed to raising mental health awareness in the office.
2. Make sure line managers are aware of any warning signs
HR will more likely be aware of how to guide employees who are struggling with their mental health; however, it will be your line managers who be dealing with these issues on a day-to-day basis.
But how do they know what signs they should be looking out for in an employee who might be suffering?
“There are obvious factors, such as increased absences, poor time keeping and a drop in performance,” explains Ali. “However, there are also slightly less obvious ones, such as a change in character, not laughing or interacting normally, or changes to their appearance. These aren’t always things that line managers will spot which is why colleagues should be vigilant as well.”
Of course, you shouldn’t presume there’s a mental health issue at the root of these symptoms but it’s important to ask questions to give employees a chance to open up if something is wrong.
3. Don’t advise; just listen
If one of your employees comes to you to discuss their mental health, you shouldn’t try to give them medical advice; listening to them is what’s key.
“Remember, you’re not a trained counsellor. Everyone’s needs are different and there are so many different routes you can go down for advice and treatment,” says Ali. “The main thing is that you listen as you can achieve a huge amount by just asking ‘what can we do to help’?”
If there’s anything directly in your control that you can do, such as taking any excess work off their plate or allowing the employee to work flexibly, by all means do so. However, when it comes to medical and psychological guidance it’s best to leave it to the professionals.
Following on from the previous point, it’s important that your business highlights the options for employees who are struggling and need to speak with someone.
“All good organisations should have a policies and procedures in place, as well as a list of the services and support they can provide,” explains Ali. “There are some excellent resources out there and if you have all the knowledge and information, you can signpost people to the appropriate place, rather than providing advice yourself. This could be them contacting their GP or seeking help from organisations such as Mind, Rethink Mental Illness or the Samaritans.”
Make sure that all information is available in a central place; whether that’s in your staff handbook or on your company’s intranet, it’s vital that it’s easily accessible by everyone. If you’re a larger organisation, you could even look at working with a mental health expert to develop your own leaflets and services for staff.
5. Promote mental wellbeing from the outset
As well as supporting employees suffering from mental illness, companies should also be tackling mental health problems at the root cause by promoting wellbeing within the workplace.
“Promoting mental wellbeing at work is massively underplayed. If all organisations tackled this as the central issue then perhaps we wouldn’t be in the situation we are when it comes to mental health,” says Ali.
By promoting mental wellbeing in the first place and encouraging healthy decisions, there’s less chance of your employees becoming stressed and overburdened with their workload and a greater chance of retaining them, rather than them leaving to work for a more supportive employer.
A large percentage of the working population spend 40+ hours a week in the office; work is a huge part of our lives. Therefore, it’s absolutely vital to take steps to maintain your own mental wellbeing and ensure that you, your colleagues and your team are healthy and not overworked.