According to the Mental Health Foundation, 14.7% of the UK’s employees have experienced mental health problems in the workplace. It can take the form of stress, depression, anxiety, or dependency, and the impact can be devastating. For businesses, it means lost productivity, disruption, and sickness absence – 12.7% of all UK sickness absences can be attributed to mental health conditions, costing up to £8 billion per year. For individuals, it can mean so much more. And as employers, we have the power to make a difference.
Taking control of workplace mental health
There has been increasing awareness of the importance of mental health in recent years. But while attitudes are broadly changing, there is still great reluctance among employees to acknowledge that they’re struggling. Having a workplace wellbeing programme can help.
What can SMEs do to help employee mental health?
Create a culture of communication
An inherent feature of many mental health conditions is an unwillingness to discuss problems. There’s a fear that if we tell our employers what’s going on, we’ll be discriminated against and considered lacking. Creating a culture of communication, where regular mental health ‘checkups’ are part of work life and there’s space to address concerns can remove that barrier. Implement a system of one-to-ones, surveys, or HR feedback windows, anything that gives your team members a chance to speak out.
Your business relies upon having people who can get your work done. But for many, a prime cause of stress is arbitrary conditions. A lack of flexibility in working hours – or working spaces – can make working life unnecessarily difficult, forcing childcare concerns and other related issues. Flexible working can relieve much of that pressure.
Everyone is different. And it can be hard to know how to help every problem. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. At Intelligent Voice, we have recently introduced a mental health helpline for our team. With company-funded therapy sessions to help anyone who needs support.
Make use of technology
Even within a culture of communication, not everyone will take the opportunity to speak out. That’s where managers need to play their part. And that’s also where technology can help. Artificial intelligence (AI) has the power to monitor employee behaviour and flag signs of burnout and depression. Changes in the way people work and communicate – the way they speak, for example – can signal signs of stress and depression. With the right AI, these can automatically be detected, enabling employers to better support the people who work for them. Of course, this raises other questions about privacy, and any systems would need careful implementation.
We’ve all had jobs where it’s implicitly understood that work will come home with you. If emails were sent, they needed to be responded to, regardless of the time of day or night. And deadlines took no account of extraneous factors. Don’t be that manager. Encouraging employees to prioritise their own self-care, by prohibiting email use outside of the office and allowing time off for therapy – or just a bit of breathing space during the day – can make all the difference.
Speaking from experience
I’m an entrepreneur, a business owner, a people manager. I am, I believe, pretty successful. About 20 years ago, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It took me a while to come to the point where I was able to get a diagnosis but it was not soon enough to prevent a rapid deterioration, culminating in a complete breakdown. I was lucky. I had the support of a wonderful family, without whom I’m not sure I’d have got through it. My immediate boss was supportive, I had critical illness insurance and private medical insurance which bought me the best doctors and treatment. But my experience is a rare one. Very few people who have struggled with mental health issues to that degree are able to get through the experience and thrive afterwards. As employers, we have the power to change that: On top of our workplace support package, we offer both critical illness cover and private medical insurance to our staff.
Everyone’s normal is different. My mental health difficulties are unlike anyone else’s. And of course, bipolar isn’t caused by workplace stress, it’s an organic disease. But stress can be a trigger. And that has made me acutely aware of the importance of workplace support.
Everyone has the right to feel supported in the workplace. No one should be left overwhelmed and unsupported in their job. World Mental Health Day is a good time to remember that.