Acas is one of 11 organisations who came together with Mind six months ago to form the Mental Health at Work Gateway - a collection of resources for employers, line managers and employees. This week it passed 100,000 unique users.
In this article, Abigail Hirshman, Mental Health expert at Acas describes the bravery needed to talk about mental health, and the bravery needed to think tactically about what your responsibilities are as a line manager and employer.
The bravery of navigating work environments
‘I have depression’; ‘I suffer from an anxiety disorder’; ‘my husband took his life’; I care for my daughter who has schizophrenia’; ‘I am under too much pressure’.
For the last 25 years, I have listened to individuals articulate their experiences with mental ill health. These have ranged from my early career working with individuals in a therapeutic setting to more recently working with Acas and speaking to people across the business community.
Whilst people who are willing to stand up and talk about their own struggles is becoming more familiar, it is still not the norm. We rightly call people ‘brave’ for sharing their personal stories, but I think true bravery is in the day to day lived experience of navigating working environments that are sometimes in direct opposition to the factors that create wellness.
Refocusing on the employer’s responsibility
I do wonder if the focus on individual needs and actions distracts from the employer’s responsibility to consider the environmental factors within an organisation.
This is not a quick win, bowls of fruit on the desk may look nice but in reality, the research suggests that fruit eaters will just eat more fruit. It’s about having the bravery to try something more fundamental – and to trust your people.
About 18 months ago, I was at a conference where four senior HR Directors from well known brands discussed how they managed mental health and wellbeing.
There were some nice stories about employee assistance programmes, counselling, flexible working, etc. – and they were clearly proud of the steps they had taken - but nothing we hadn’t all heard before. Nothing which reflected what is becoming a fact – that the individual is only one arm of the triumvirate.
The employer and line manager need to explore much more fundamentally their role too. To be brave and question what it is in the workplace which is having a negative impact on staff – and own the response.
In the end I asked if any of them had thought of a more wholesale organisational approach to employee wellbeing? This would mean their actions signify that long hours cultures or working structures which leave people more isolated are challenged. An example would be the German car manufacturers who turn off or delete emails received out of hours or at weekends.
While I received some nods and smiles from the audience, the panel were unmoved.
Employers need to be brave
I spend a lot of my time working with companies, helping them address employee mental health and wellbeing. I tell them be brave, consider the impact of the decisions you make on mental wellbeing. Look at how to prevent organisational and structural changes negatively affecting the workforce.
Avoid what our Chair Sir Brendan Barber calls ‘the human lag’. This is where employers realise the impact of change too late and have to be reactive.
This leads to more time consuming, difficult and expensive activities to pick up the pieces afterwards in the form of time off, counselling or more restructures.
Reducing office space or hot desking may be necessary - but what does it mean in reality? Some employees may come in earlier to get a desk, or not come in at all.
Flexible working is clearly a cherished perk for many - but a lack of social contact, which helps build professional and personal resilience, can result in negative impacts for individuals and team cohesion.
Organisations can think about building regular mandatory face to face meetings in to everyone’s diaries. They can also think more creatively about how ideas and problems can be shared.
It makes good business sense
Having the bravery to think about practical structural solutions to positive mental wellbeing isn’t about being soft or too employee centric, it is good business sense.
One organisation I work with asks all field workers to come into the office after annual leave, so the last day of their holiday is still a holiday not a day to catch up with emails – and they get the opportunity to share news and updates face to face.
Another organisation gives everybody the day off on their birthday, whilst another recently reduced the working week from 40 hours to 38 hours.
What works depends very much on the nature of the business and the people in it.
One thing I always emphasise is that employers are not responsible for ‘fixing’ the complexities of their employees’ lives. They are however responsible for not being the cause of or exacerbating mental ill health.
Taking brave steps to signify that they will listen and embed practices which promote employee wellbeing has a real tangible impact on trust levels and engagement – and ultimately the bottom line.
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