Creating an effective and sympathetic approach to mental wellbeing in the workplace can be a daunting task, but should that really be the case? Being reactive rather than proactive in dealing with mental wellbeing within your workplace only functions to reinforce the stigma that mental ill-health already has.
A recent survey from Personal Group has revealed that employee awareness of mental health issues in the UK is on the rise. 80% of respondents said they had noticed an overall increase in awareness of mental health generally in the UK, however a staggering 62% said they noticed no change in the levels of awareness in their workplace.
Unfortunately, it seems as though employers are not embracing this societal change, as a startling 39% of UK employees said their workplace does not offer any mental health support for employees, and 66% felt their employer does not offer enough support.
But exactly what support should employers be providing? Three core elements of a strategy that, I believe, are needed to support mental health proactively in the workplace are: raising awareness; line manager support; providing mental health days as a benefit.
Two thirds of UK managers and over half of front-line employees (66.43% and 56.49% respectively) are looking for more mental health awareness training in their workplace even though the majority believe that they are already well informed about mental ill-health. While there are a number of reasons this has occurred, the two most likely are that while UK workers feel informed about mental health issues, they believe that there is more to learn, or alternately, they believe that their co-workers are not as clued up as they should be.
Once mental health awareness training is complete, it is important to keep wellbeing resources on hand for staff to access help and advice in the future, whether they find themselves to be suffering from a mental health issue themselves or if they are just concerned about a colleague. However, it is important that your staff and managers understand that they do not need to become mental health experts. Employers may be concerned about providing mental health support, seeing it as something best left to the professionals. However, in the same way that workplace first aiders would never be expected to treat a broken leg in the office, mental health support can be provided without having to have the professional qualifications to resolve all of the issues, just the awareness and knowledge of where to point staff for support can be enough.
Talking about mental health is an important step in tackling it. The phrase ‘mental health issues’ itself is often seen in a negative light, with employers and employees alike preferring the phrase ‘emotional wellbeing’ and discussing ‘wellness’ as opposed to discussing ‘mental health’.
Mates in Mind revealed that having a supportive manager or supervisor is the most crucial factor in remaining or returning to work with a mental health condition. However, according to Time to Change, 67% of people with poor mental health do not tell their employer because they worry about the reaction.
If employees don’t feel able to disclose issues to their managers as they arise, the symptoms of their mental ill-health can be far more severe by the time they are noticed, which also means they can take longer to resolve.
By creating a culture of openness around wellbeing, and implementing a robust mental health awareness training scheme, employers can make employees feel supported and encourage them to raise any issues and concerns before they develop into something far more debilitating.
With today’s workforce becoming more mobile and remote, creating a culture of openness is more important than ever. Managers may not have day-to-day contact with their direct reports, so may be less likely to notice issues unless the employee raises them.
Employers can help combat this by implementing an effective communications structure which allows managers to contact their employees, wherever they are, even on the road.
Personal Group’s survey data clearly shows a desire from employees for mental health days as a wellbeing benefit, with over half of all respondents wishing their company offered them (52.95%). Interestingly, while some UK Directors and Company owners also see the value of offering mental health days, they are in the minority, with only 28% agreeing.
This could be due to the nature of the mental health days themselves, and the fear of misuse. While it’s generally accepted that employees will only take a day of sickness absence when they absolutely cannot function at work, when it comes to mental ill-health the rationale seems to be reversed.
The rationale behind a mental health day is taking a day off work for the sole purpose of doing something good for your own mental health and wellbeing, thereby preventing any escalation and avoiding future sickness absence. People who take a mental health day may be physically well enough to come to work but can sense that their mental health is suffering and fear that they are at risk of becoming ill unless they take some time to focus on their mental wellbeing. Unfortunately, there is fear that they will be misused to shirk work responsibilities or ‘skive’. This fear seems misguided; if workers are trusted to only take sick leave when they are unable to function at work, the same should be true for mental health days.
The provision of mental health days alone is not sufficient, as providing the time to staff without the necessary resources may not be enough in isolation. Providing access to an employee assistance helpline, counselling or other wellbeing resources as well as the time to work on their mental wellbeing can pay dividends to the organisation.
Symptoms of mental ill-health can often take longer to both reveal themselves and to resolve than physical health related symptoms, so taking preventative measures just makes good business sense.
With all this in mind, while the concept of the mental health day is far from common in the UK, it’s something that organisations might want to consider implementing, alongside better mental health awareness training, an effective communications infrastructure and more supportive management.
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