Opinion

Is now the time to start a new conversation about employee wellbeing?

5 min read

19 February 2016

Mental health awareness has been brought to the forefront as people start pay attention to the statistics – that one in four are diagnosed with mental health issues. But what does this mean for businesses?

In a recent survey conducted by Mind, 56 per cent of those polled felt that their work was very or fairly stressful. If you pair this statistic to the fact that nine out of ten people with mental health issues experience stigma and discrimination it highlights that urgent need for new conversations about employee wellbeing.

Sadly, many senior management teams still view employee wellbeing as wooly, arguing that people need to “toughen up”. We believe that by understanding what lies beneath employee illness, you can develop a workspace that promotes health, without losing any business success. It is important to remember that it costs 50 per cent less to support and retain experienced staff than it does to recruit new ones.

One key area that often gets overlooked in the wellbeing discussion is the behaviour of the leadership team. This group can be a trigger behind stress in the workplace, as their behaviour influences those around them to act the same. Similar to children with their parents, employees will mimic what the leadership team do, not what they say. The solution to this is simply developing the leadership team. 

It may seem obvious, but many in the upper echelons do not want to be developed. This has proven to be a large obstacle for many HR professionals, but if you put their poor behaviour to them in business terns, such as lost hours in meetings, or the cost of severance, they will quickly recognise the business implications themselves.

Another key area that often gets over looked is the long hours culture. Not only is it unproductive, it is a major contribution to employee illness. Procrastination, time wasting, too many meetings, too much focus on looking busy, too many documents, no documentation – these are all strategies employees unconsciously adopt to cope with long hours. 

Read more about tackling mental health issues in the workplace:

To tackle the long hours culture, senior management first need to be convinced that it is not good for business and there is simply a better way. Moving to an outcome or output focus can help to do this. This is developed by gradually adjusting all measures so that people are rewarded for delivering not striving or sacrificing. By setting realistic targets in projects and appraisals and banishing language that congratulates long hours, the office mindset will slowly shift to one of achievement rather than sacrificing.

Mental health can be the hardest area to navigate within employee wellbeing, but it can be handled with some simple strategies within the organisation. There is a set of key early indicators that signal stress, depression and anxiety in the workplace that leader and managers can be trained to spot. Often dips in output, changes in appearance and behavioural attitudes are misinterpreted and associated with other issues. 

By training leaders, this can be prevented. It is important, however, to stress that there isn’t an expectation for managers to become counselors. If you don’t have an employee assistance programme to signpost people to, put together some resources people can use to go and get help. Even a simple factsheet with options like seeing your GP or the UKCP and BACP websites to find private counsellors can be really helpful as people often don’t know where to start.

Similarly, at a TED talk in September 2015, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin told a story of how a few years ago he broke into his own house. This led him to come across a system that would keep him calm when he entered a stressful situation.

John McLachlan and Karen Meager are the authors of “Real Leaders for the Real World”, and founders of Monkey Puzzle Training and Consultancy.