The statistic that 1 in 4 people will experience mental health problems in any given year is being increasingly quoted. However, recent research by Business in the Community (BITC) (2017) suggests that as many as 3 out of 5 employees have experienced mental health problems in relation to work in the last year, suggesting the problem is much more significant for business.
Over the past couple of years, Princes William and Harry have taken huge steps in reducing the stigma around mental health in the general population. However, the impact of this is yet to be fully realised within the work setting. There can still exist a culture in which those experiencing mental health difficulties feel ashamed and fear losing opportunities for promotion, or even fear job loss, if they disclose their problems. Indeed, BITC reports that just 13% of people feel able to disclose mental health difficulties to their manager.
It is vital to give the message that the mental health of employees is as important as their physical health. Therefore, include elements of mental health in any wellbeing awareness raising/promotion. Many of the strategies for managing good physical health (balanced eating, regular exercise, good sleep etc) are also crucial for mental wellbeing, so stress the benefits of both.
An ad hoc approach to wellbeing will not result in good employee engagement or outcomes. There needs to be a strong strategic approach, supported and driven by senior leaders. Whilst often an HR initiative, wellbeing needs to be held in mind by everyone at the top of the organisation, with key people being seen to ‘walk the walk’ rather than just ‘talk the talk’.
Whilst there needs to be ownership at the top, there also needs to be broad engagement across the organisation and the development of specific champions can be really helpful. Supporting those who have experienced mental health related difficulties to tell the story and showcase where people have received good support is incredibly powerful. Having someone in a leadership position who is willing to do this will have an enormous impact.
It is important to engage employees by educating about the importance of looking after one’s emotional health, not just from a work perspective. Supporting a mental health charity is also a good way to raise awareness and start to provide a way to talk about mental health that is non-threatening.
The BITC report identifies that less than a quarter of managers have had specific mental health training. Providing training to managers on how to talk about mental health issues and how to respond in a supportive manner will enable them to feel much more confident and thereby encourage disclosure. This is a soft skill that many will not have had the opportunity to develop. Also ensuring a culture in which employees have regular one-to-ones will mean there is a space for mental wellbeing to be discussed routinely, thereby becoming a much more proactive approach.
Whether there is an internal employee assistance programme or not, employees need to know how to access good mental health support. Access to psychoeducational material is a must. Investing in a psychologist or other mental health professional to provide therapeutic interventions as early as possible, will help equip employees with the skills they need to manage their mental health, prevent deterioration and reduce time off work.
The concept of resilience has become a buzz-word in many organizations, but there can be a tendency for this idea to be perceived negatively by employees. Whilst building skills for emotional resilience is essential, it needs to be balanced with an organizational approach to minimising stress in the workplace. Resilience is important for wellbeing, not just so that one can handle more stress; it’s important that the right balance is achieved in the message about resilience.
The disclosure of mental health problems can sometimes lead to the individual’s capabilities being dismissed. Many people will be able to function just as effectively within the workplace and work is an important protective factor for many people. Even if there has been a period when someone’s mental health has negatively impacted on his/her work performance, this does not have to be a negative. Often this enables people to be more empathic towards others that are struggling and to recognize the signs of mental distress more acutely.
So, developing a culture that challenges stigma around mental health and promotes a positive attitude towards caring for employees’ emotional wellbeing can be achieved. It is not possible overnight, and requires investment and strong leadership, but the benefits are becoming increasingly clear. Studies suggest a fourfold return on financial investment and increased ratings of the organisation being a good place to work, when wellbeing is prioritized. But most importantly, we are all human; all on a fluctuating continuum between mental health and mental distress, and we need to develop communities that recognize, support and care.
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