Employers have a legal duty of care to support health and wellbeing in the workplace. An organisational culture that recognises and addresses mental health with the same importance and urgency as physical health should be at the top of any employer’s priority list.
How big of an issue is mental health?
According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem at some point in their life. Anxiety and depression are the most common issues, often in response to difficult life events such as bereavement. However, poor mental health can be brought on or pre-existing conditions aggravated due to problems at work.
Research by mental health charity MIND also confirmed a culture of fear and silence around mental health is costly to employers. Following a survey of employees, it discovered that 21% had called in sick as a way to cope with workplace stress, while 14% had resigned and another 42% had also considered handing in their notice.
The bottom line is that by addressing the mental health needs of your employees, organisations will not only improve general wellbeing but reduce absenteeism, lower staff turnover and increase productivity.
What has been the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic?
Sudden changes in our everyday routines, restrictions on seeing people and worries about the health of family and friends have fuelled a dramatic increase in mental health issues.
According to MIND, more than half of adults and over two-thirds of young people said their wellbeing deteriorated in the early stages of the lockdown in April and May.
Coming out of lockdown didn’t necessarily reverse these fortunes. Every person would have been through a different experience – some may have continued to work from home while others were furloughed, some may even have had a loved one contract the virus. So undoubtedly, while some employees were happy to be returning to the office, the ease of lockdown generated significant anxiety for others.
With restrictions on our daily lives due to continuing for the foreseeable future, the exploration of tailored ways of working for employees struggling to find their footing in this ‘new normal’ will remain vital.
How can my company support mental health in the workplace?
Firstly, employers already have a legal ‘duty of care’ which means they must do all they reasonably can to support their employees’ health, safety and wellbeing. This includes making sure the working environment is safe, protecting people from discrimination and carrying out risk assessments.
A mental health issue can also be considered a disability under the law – further protecting an employee from discrimination – if it has a ‘substantial adverse effect’ on the life of the employee, it lasts at least 12 months and it affects their ability to do their normal day-to-day activities, such as keeping to set working times.
Here are some ways you can meet your legal responsibilities and ensure you’re creating the most supportive environment possible.
- Remove the stigma
People are often afraid to speak up and seek help because of the long-held stigma associated with mental health, as opposed to physical health. Show the importance your company places on mental health by producing a policy that acknowledges its impact, explains who employees can talk to and what help your organisation can provide.
Coupling this with awareness training for executives, managers and HR professionals will help further embed an understanding and validity of mental health issues in your workplace culture.
- Talk openly about mental health
Having your company’s commitment to supporting good mental health in the workplace will help encourage people to speak more openly about it. If people feel they can approach their employers without fear or shame, then problems are less likely to build up.
Regular 1-2-1s with your team members may provide a comfortable space for them to come forward with any personal issues, while the creation of mental health champions – specially trained employees from all levels of the company – which people can contact confidentially also offer another valuable outlet.
If you’re not sure how to gauge the wellbeing of your team or the support they would most value, then ask them! An anonymous employee survey may provide you with the answers you need.
- Create a safe environment
Having a psychologically safe workplace is vitally important for encouraging people to speak openly. This term describes an environment where team members feel safe to take risks and will not be embarrassed or punished for speaking up or making honest mistakes. For someone trying to cope with a mental health issue, to work in such a trusting environment is likely to encourage them to seek help and aid in their recovery.
Conversely, a workplace low in psychological safety could be a trigger for mental health problems.
- Make reasonable adjustments
A ‘reasonable adjustment’ is a change made by an employer to remove or reduce the effect of an employee’s disability so they can fulfil their role. While this is particularly important for anyone who has a mental health issue that is legally considered to be a disability (as mentioned above), these could be considered for anyone who needs an extra helping hand in getting through the working day.
Reasonable adjustments could be as simple as more 1-2-1 support, flexible working hours or a phased return to work for those who have been on long-term sick leave.
- Offer Employee Assistance Programmes
For those who need further assistance, companies can offer access to Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), which provide confidential services, such as counselling and 24hr helplines, on a wide range of personal issues with the cost met by the employer. In a time when NHS mental health services are stretched, these are valuable interventions for employees that will hopefully prevent incidents of absenteeism and long-term sick leave.
As a company, it is important to choose an EAP that best fits the culture of your organisation and to double-check all affiliates, like counsellors, have the appropriate professional accreditations.
If you’d like further practical tips, advice or training to support mental wellbeing in your workplace, talk to us at Tell Jane. Email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can jump on a video call.