HR & Management

Putting mental health on your workplace agenda

6 min read

28 November 2017

World Mental Health Day took place in October and for the first time, the focus was on the office environment – a sign businesses are openly recognising the link between mental wellbeing and the modern workplace.

Unum, in partnership with The Mental Health Foundation, has produced its own research on this topic too. Our 2016 report, “Added value: Mental health as a workplace asset”, revealed by 2030 the challenges arising from staff mental health concerns could cost the UK economy £32.7bn.

Many companies are introducing and championing mental health strategies. Despite increased awareness, 42 per cent of those we surveyed with a mental health condition still don’t disclose this information to their work, because they fear stigma and discrimination.

But how can employers ensure mental health policies are not “just a tick in the box” and fully benefit all employees?

Be proactive from the start

A new whitepaper from Morneau Shepell centered around the concept of “cognitive hygiene”. It discusses the need for individuals to know how to effectively manage negative thinking through concepts such as mindfulness, meditation and good work/life balance to prevent exacerbating mental health issues.

Employers are encouraged to teach staff how to use sustainable actions to remind themselves to continue these practices on a daily basis. If followed regularly enough, arrangements such as setting an alarm to remind you not to stay late in the office or making sure you take a full lunch break away from your desk, can result in positive, long-term behaviour changes, which in turn, can enhance mental wellbeing.

Offering internal training such as Mental Health First Aid can give employees the tools to keep themselves and their colleagues healthy from the start too. There are many different sessions available and some third-party providers offer in-house training.

Make decisions based on the individual

The Financial Times’ Health at Work report shows ill health affects corporate productivity through employee absenteeism and presenteeism — when staff turn up to work but are ineffective when they get there. So to help combat such issues, companies should try to give managers the latitude to shape mental health policies according to the individual needs of their team members.

Promoting more flexible work schedules, such as allowing remote working during difficult periods or enabling employees to take time off for mental health issues, will mean individuals are able to continue their roles effectively when in the right frame of mind to do so.

As important as it is to prevent mental health issues from occurring, Walker stresses on the next page that those with existing problems need support as well

Support employees with existing concerns

Our mental health report found working adults with mental health problems (MHPs) contributed an estimated £226bn to UK GDP in 2015. Some 67 per cent of the people surveyed wanted to use flexible working to reduce absenteeism and support their mental health. This implies businesses who are inflexible and unwilling to make reasonable adjustments for employees living with MHPs could end up losing important workplace talent.

Establishing employee assistance programmes (EAPs) can be an extremely useful addition to help employees already experiencing difficulties. EAPS offer direct, confidential contact with experts who can support individuals with emotional distress, from family issues to work-related problems, addiction and mental illness.

Our research also shows it’s imperative businesses equip managers with the skills and knowledge needed to support their team members suffering from mental health conditions. The majority (90 per cent) of line managers we surveyed felt they hadn’t received adequate training to deal with and make decisions about these issues in an informed and confident manner.

Some managers may benefit from being sent away on a one or two-day course, but many will get significant insight from a lunchtime or breakfast session. Offering short and frequent training opportunities will help ensure maximum attendance all year round.

Encourage open conversations

Establish a mental health champions network to combat negative reactions and encourage open dialogue. Creating an environment where mental health is discussed openly amongst employees, can be one of the best ways to lessen its taboo. These can be individuals who are available for informal chats with employees and can provide more detailed advice on the support available to those who might be struggling.

Bringing in speakers can help get employees thinking about their lifestyle choices in and outside of work too and equip them with the knowledge to take control and improve their own health. According to Westfield Health, for example, a combination of factors such as 24/7 access to technology and our stressed lifestyles is blurring our work and home lives. It’s increasingly difficult to switch off and relax – which can lead to sleep problems.

Sleep deprivation has a direct impact on workplace performance and productivity. Research by Rand Corporation has shown it costs the UK economy £40bn a year through lower productivity and employee absences. Introducing training sessions on how to use positive sleep behavioural and environmental change techniques could be highly beneficial not only for employees but for your business’ bottom line.

Liz Walker is HR director of Unum UK