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Mental ill health costs UK employers over £30 billion every year through lost production, recruitment and absence. It is important that organisations understand mental health, as the Department of Health advises that one in four of us will experience mental ill health at some point in our lives. Aside from the cost to business, employees with positive mental health are more likely to work productively, interact well with colleagues and find it easier to adapt to change.
What is Mental Health?
Mental health is our state of emotional, psychological and social wellbeing. Our mental health affects how we think, feel, act and how we cope with normal everyday life. Factors both in and outside of work affect our mental health and move us up or down a scale that ranges from good to poor.
Positive mental health is rarely an absolute state as anyone can suffer a period of mental ill health. It can occur suddenly, as a result of a specific event, or gradually, where it develops over time.
A person may generally have positive mental health but, for example, a death in the family may trigger a period of depression, moving them into poor mental health. In contrast, a person with a mental health condition, such as anxiety, may have developed good coping strategies, so for the majority of the time they will be in good mental health.
Some conditions may be persistent and are classed as a disability; others may be periodic, where the person may have good days and bad days. People diagnosed with a mental health condition can, with the right support, enjoy positive mental health. Common mental health issues can range from, for example, stress, anxiety and depression to more serious mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
What May Cause Mental Ill Health?
Many of the issues that cause mental ill health are likely to have occurred outside the workplace. These may be early life experiences or a past or recent trauma, or financial or health difficulties. However, although work can be good for people’s mental health (providing a sense of identity, belonging and personal achievement), the workplace can sometimes have a negative effect on mental health.
Some of the more common factors that can trigger mental health issues include:
- Unmanageable workloads/demands.
- Little or no autonomy over work.
- Job insecurity.
- Little or no work-life balance.
- Poor relationships with management and/or work colleagues.
- Bullying and/or harassment.
- Organisational changes.
- Working from home (e.g. isolation, environment, resources).
Organisations may not be able to prevent many of the causes of mental ill health, however, they can put strategies in place to tackle work-related causes that may trigger or intensify mental ill health.
What Can Employers do to Help Tackle Work-Related Causes of Mental Ill Health?
1. De-stigmatise Mental Health
There are still a lot of misconceptions and lack of understanding of mental health issues which can perpetuate a stigma around the subject. Often people who are experiencing mental ill health are scared that they will be judged or discriminated against.
They may hide the issues from managers and colleagues, and it may not be obvious that there is an issue until something serious happens to affect either the employee or the organisation.
Organisations that promote a positive mental health culture create an environment where employees feel confident to disclose issues and to discuss them with managers and colleagues. When you create a workplace culture where people can be themselves, it is easier for people to speak about mental health concerns without fear, and easier for them to ask for help when they need it.
However, the decision to disclose distress at work is not one people take lightly. It is vital that workplaces become environments where people feel safe to be themselves. Fear of discrimination and feelings of shame are among the top reasons people give for not telling their colleagues about their mental health problems.
To help create this inclusive culture, employers can get involved in and actively promote mental health awareness days throughout the year such as:
- Stress Awareness Month in April.
- Mental Health Awareness Week in May.
- Learning at Work Week in May.
- World Mental Health Day in October.
- Anti-Bullying Week in November.
These initiatives help to facilitate conversations about mental wellbeing in the workplace and can be used as a platform for employee awareness training.
2. Go Beyond Legal Obligations
Employers have legal obligations both under the Equality Act (2010) and the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 to ensure that people are not treated unfairly, that reasonable adjustments are made in the workplace where an employee’s mental ill health amounts to a disability, and that there are adequate welfare provisions for employees at work. What can this mean in practice?
Here are some examples where employers may not be complying with the law:
- Using sick absence as a criterion for redundancies may disadvantage an employee who has taken time off sick for a debilitating mental health issue.
- Not allowing some flexibility to working hours when an employee advises you their medication means they cannot work certain hours (e.g. they may become drowsy after taking it).
- Not completing return to work interviews after a period of sick absence to ascertain whether adjustments need to be made for the employee’s return.
- Not considering the mental health implications of major changes in the workplace.
Employers should consider not just current employees but also anyone with a mental health condition who is applying to join the organisation, to ensure that they do not discriminate against applicants because of a previous or current mental health condition which amounts to a disability.
Employers should ensure that discrimination on the grounds of mental health status is seen to be as unacceptable as discrimination in relation to other protected characteristics such as race, gender or sexual orientation. They should also encourage employees to report any discrimination or harassment they face and to blow the whistle on discrimination they witness.
Health and Safety at Work risk assessments must include a workplace stress risk assessment. Stress is not a mental illness in itself, however, excessive and persistent stress can trigger mental ill health in some individuals and/or exacerbate an existing mental health condition. Employers must assess the risks of stress-related mental ill health for all its employees arising from work activities and take steps to effectively manage and control potential hazards.
Employers can communicate their commitment to going beyond their legal obligations by proactively promoting positive mental health in the workplace.
You can, for example:
- Create a mental health policy to set out your organisation’s values.
- Develop a mental health strategy to change attitudes throughout the organisation.
- Senior management can champion awareness of mental health to promote a positive culture.
- Raise mental health awareness across the organisation to normalise the topic.
- Involve employees by asking for their suggestions on how to improve mental health across the organisation.
If employees are aware that senior management take mental health seriously it will empower employees to feel comfortable about talking to their managers about any issues they may have, without fear of being judged or discriminated against.
Actions Employers Can Take to Improve Mental Health in the Workplace
Employers can identify areas of the workplace that might be a cause of mental ill health by:
- Analysing data such as sick absence, employee turnover and exit interviews, as they may provide useful information; for example, has there been patterns of stress-related sick absence? Have exiting employees indicated workload as a reason for leaving?
- Regularly reviewing job descriptions to ensure that the duties, tasks and responsibilities are reasonable and appropriate.
- Reviewing staffing levels to ensure that the right headcount is in place for the work required.
- Ensuring that any vacancies are filled quickly so that current employees are not taking on too many additional demands.
- Ensuring employee objectives are clearly defined so that they know what they have to achieve and empower employees to have control over how they approach their work.
- Involve employees in workplace decisions that affect them.
- Use employee surveys or forums to gather views and opinions, but ensure that the results are not ignored and are actioned where practicable.
- Ensure employees take the breaks (such as lunch break) they are entitled to during the day and take their annual leave entitlement each year.
- Investigate the practicality of flexible working arrangements to promote work-life balance.
- Train managers on performance management including the importance of regular catch-up meetings, feedback and support so that employees and managers develop good working relationships with positive communication.
- Upskill and reskill employees to ensure that they have the right knowledge and skills to do their job.
- Where practical, review everyday tasks to introduce variety into the employee’s role, support development where appropriate.
- Consider introducing mental health champions in the workplace.
- Run training and awareness sessions for employees and managers to enable them to understand their own mental health and support the mental health of colleagues.
- Identify and signpost employees to local services or external support where appropriate.
- Positively promote mental wellbeing in the workplace throughout the year though awareness days, training, one to ones, team meetings.
- Remember that employees working at home or furloughed during COVID are just as susceptible to encountering work-related mental health issues, so ongoing communication is vital to ensure they remain healthy.
What Can Individuals Do to Maintain Good Mental Health?
We can all take positive steps to improve our own mental health, and build our resilience – our ability to cope with adversity.
- Be aware if you are drinking too much, isolating yourself or comfort eating; these are negative actions to cope with stress.
- Try talking about your feelings. This isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s part of taking charge of your wellbeing and doing what you can to stay healthy. Identify someone you feel comfortable with and who will be supportive. If you don’t feel able to talk about feelings at work, make sure there’s someone you can discuss work pressures with – partners, friends and family can all be a sounding board.
- Regular exercise can boost your self-esteem and can help you concentrate, sleep, and look and feel better. Try to make a physical activity that you enjoy a part of your day.
- What you eat can affect how you feel both immediately and in the longer term. A diet that is good for your physical health is also good for your mental health.
- People often drink alcohol to change their mood. It can be tempting to have a drink to get ‘Dutch courage’, but if you feel anxious you may drink too much and end up behaving in a way you’d rather not, which will increase feelings of anxiety in the medium to long term. Be aware if you begin a pattern of drinking more at the weekend or in the evening when work is hard going.
- Relationships are key to our mental health. Working in a supportive team is hugely important for our mental health at work. Working from home or being furloughed through COVID has had an effect on this so try and make sure you maintain your working relationships and friendships; make time to just “have a chat” with others, and not just about work.
- A change of scene or a change of pace is good for your mental health. Take regular breaks, leave the workplace for lunch, take your holiday entitlement. Even a few minutes can be enough to de-stress you. Give yourself some “me time”.
- Enjoying yourself can help beat stress. Doing an activity that you enjoy probably means you’re good at it, and achieving something boosts your self-esteem.
- We’re all different. It’s much healthier to accept that you’re unique than to wish you were more like someone else; good self-esteem helps you cope when life takes a difficult turn.
How You Could Support Colleagues
Talking about mental health can seem daunting, but we’ve all had conversations with people about bereavements, break-ups and other life issues. It all starts with asking someone how they are doing in a warm and authentic way – giving them a chance to realise that you are being sincere and friendly. This often means a lot to a person having a tough time, but if they don’t want to talk just let them know you are there when they are ready.
When they are ready to talk it may be hard to hear difficult or upsetting things, but you want to reassure and encourage the person – that means not showing signs of surprise or judgement.
Reassure the person that it’s OK to be speaking to you, and that you will treat what they say with respect and, if they want, confidentiality. Don’t start suggesting solutions to problems – they may just want to get it off their chest – wait until they ask for your opinion or advice and, even then, be aware that your solution may not suit them.
If your colleague says they are feeling suicidal or can’t go on, or if you suspect they are thinking of taking their own life, it is important to encourage them to get help. If you are concerned for someone’s immediate safety, or they tell you that they plan to end their life imminently, you can call 999 and ask for the police.
For some people, an episode of mental ill health is a one-off – triggered by events. However, colleagues with ongoing mental health issues require help to stay well. You can ensure that the workplace is a safe and pleasant place to be and free from discrimination.
You can ask the person what they need; the best expert on a person’s needs is themselves – if there is one golden rule for supporting a colleague, it is never to assume and always ask.
If a colleague has been off work with a mental health issue, keeping in touch and letting them know you care is a great way to prevent awkwardness when they return to work. Ask the person who is off work what they would like their colleagues to be told and respect their wishes.
There are a range of organisations to help you become better informed about mental health issues such as: