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World Mental Health Day: How can you support your workforce?

With World Mental Health Day on Sunday 10th October, we look at how employers can take a more proactive approach to supporting the mental health of their workforce.

Just like physical health, our mental health fluctuates throughout our lives and is impacted by what is going on around us. If we look after our mental health we give ourselves the best chance to fulfil our potential, be resilient to life events and play a full part in our relationships both in our personal lives and at work.

So improving the mental health of the population should to be a goal for all of us – why wouldn’t we want a happier, healthier and more productive population. However, we have a long way to go to see major change. It is estimated that 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year in England and 1 in 6 report experiencing a common mental health problem (like anxiety or depression) in any given week. The pandemic has led to an increase in poor mental health issues and it has been reported that 21% adults in the UK experienced some form of depression in early 2021 which is more than double the level observed before the pandemic.

In the past mental health has been a topic that many employers have avoided as they find it difficult to talk about or feel they are unable to provide informed advice to employees who are suffering mental health problems. Over the last 18 months the impact of the pandemic has shone a light on mental health and business leaders will have seen the direct and indirect impact of the pandemic on their own mental health and the mental health of their workforce.  As a result more employers have recognised that if they want their business to be operationally resilient and competitive they need to focus on mental health to help their employees become more resilient.

Taking positive steps to improve the mental health of your workforce can have a significant impact on a business. Initiatives to improve mental health increases workplace engagement and culture, decreases absenteeism and presenteeism, improves staff retention and makes it easier to recruit the best staff. All of this leads to increased productivity and a better workplace. The alternative is a disengaged and less productive workforce, a high turnover of staff and a higher risk of claims associated with failing to adequately support staff with mental health problems.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, the value added [JG1] [CT2] to the economy by people who are at work and have or have had mental health problems is as high at £225 billion per year (12.1% of the UK’s total GDP), demonstrating the vital need to support those who make this considerable contribution to the economy.

Investing in your staff’s mental health doesn’t have to be a huge financial investment. Some of the most effective assistance just requires you to listen and communicate well and it is usually more valuable to invest time rather than money into improving the mental health of your workforce. Below we touch on some of the things we are seeing good employers do to improve mental health.

Five key themes to improve the mental health of your workforce:

1.     Work on resilience

Resilience is not only someone’s ability to bounce back, but also the ability to adapt to the circumstances surrounding us and face challenges whilst maintaining stable mental health.

To start to improve resilience you need to talk to your staff to understand their concerns and the issues they and their families are facing . . By identifying the common issues, you can ensure you focus your time on the right areas and show your employees that you are listening and care about them. You can then look at where you can implement support, training and other initiatives to help your employees learn from past experiences and be better prepared for the future.

2.     Show you understand and be prepared to be vulnerable

Ensure managers are aware of the common mental health issues and how to spot the signs of someone who may need help. Perhaps identify if there are any training needs for managers which in turn would enable them to offer a higher level of support to their staff.

It is important that senior leadership teams reflect on their own mental health and let employees know that it is ok to not always be ok. The ability of managers to show some vulnerability and to remove the perception that admitting to a mental health problem is a sign of weakness is a major step towards creating a supportive work environment where employees are willing to seek support. During the pandemic we have seen many great examples of business leaders sharing their own experiences of mental health issues and encouraging employees to seek support rather than suffer in silence.

3.     Create a supportive environment

Employers should create an environment where employees feel they are able to talk openly about any mental health issues they might be experiencing. By ensuring that the approach towards mental health is treated with the same focus and importance as physical health, employees are more likely to open up. We have seen lots of great examples of employers having specific mental health 1-2-1s, training workplace mental health first aiders, regular discussion of mental health as an important topic from the boardroom to the shop floor and providing access to mental health counselling.

4.     Health and wellbeing policy

Creating and implementing a specific policy that sets out your approach to health and wellbeing, including mental health, in the workplace will demonstrate that your business is serious about improving mental health and wellbeing and supporting employees who have mental health issues. The policy would link into all other policies and require the business to give thought to health and wellbeing on a regular basis, considering the impact of changes in the workplace on mental health. It would establish the aims and commitment of your organisation to improve health and wellbeing and include a procedure for dealing with mental health issues when they arise.

5.     Raise awareness

Raising awareness of mental health in your workplace will encourage individuals to come forward to seek help and will ensure that your employees are in a position where they feel more comfortable in supporting their colleagues as well as recognising when someone might be struggling.

Many employers are now arranging regular activities for their workforce with the aim of improving mental health. There are so many things that can be done even if you don’t have a large budget. Events range from guest speakers to internal or external workshops or online sessions on mental health, diet, sleep, finances, cookery and fitness. Putting on events may also provide employees with an appreciated break from a stressful working environment and will improve workplace engagement.

Supporting and caring for your employees has been recognised for many years as good for business, but talking about mental health has remained for many a taboo. The universal challenges of the pandemic, including changes to the workplace, in particular remote working, has brought the need to consider mental health into sharper focus that ever. Responding to this is essential for business as we emerge from the pandemic.

Employment partner Jamie Gamble is a regular speaker on health and wellbeing in the workplace. If you want to talk to him about your business’s obligations and approach, do contact him directly.