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A guide to supporting mental health in the workplace

Written 14 March, 2019, 5 minutes to read

In our hyper-connected, switched-on society, mental health disorders like anxiety and depression are becoming more and more prevalent. And people are starting to take notice: they’re being spoken about more, and it’s become increasingly important that mental health in the workplace is properly addressed.

But while more companies are recognizing the impact of the workplace on employee wellbeing – and the need to start taking responsibility for it – how can employers actually do something useful about it? Supporting mental health in the workplace is within everyone's grasp; this guide is all about how to put policy into practice.

The importance of mental health in the workplace

Mental health has long been an overlooked part of employee wellbeing. Recent research suggests that two out of three workers in the UK have experienced or are currently experiencing mental health issues, and a further nine out of ten said they’ve been generally affected by mental health issues.

Employers who ignore employee mental health do so at their own peril. When it comes to calling in sick, mental health issues are the leading cause of time off, and globally they cause $1 trillion in lost productivity each year. And since mental health has an enormous impact on employee motivation, collaboration, turnover and productivity, the impacts of it are far-reaching and cannot not be minimized.

Companies leading the change

Once a taboo subject, in recent years we’ve learned just how important it is to address mental health in the workplace, and that people should be able to talk about it without fear or concern. More workplaces than ever before are beginning to invest in mental health, and a ton of initiatives around the world are encouraging them to take notice. To name a few:

  1. Unilever has encouraged their leaders to participate in workshops that teach them how to recognize signs of mental health problems, as part of their global health initiative

  2. Aetna unrolled a mindfulness program for their employees which saved $3,000 per employee per year on lost productivity. After the first year of the initiative, the company saved $6 million on healthcare overall.

  3. In England, more than 900 companies have signed the Time To Change Employee Pledge, which demonstrates their commitment to change the ways they think and speak about mental health in the workplace, and helps ensure their employees feel supported.

How you can support employee mental health

Obviously, these campaigns are positive, but the fact remains that few managers are properly trained in how to approach employee mental health. Taking a workshop might be illuminating, but it will remain a token gesture until you actually know how to practically tackle mental health in the workplace. The proactive steps you can take right now to support employee mental health include:

1. Invest in mental health training

To properly support positive mental health, both employers and team members should participate in training programs to become better informed and equipped to deal with employee wellbeing. These programs can teach you how to spot the signs of mental ill health, how to approach someone to talk about it, and how to manage someone experiencing mental health problems.

2. Address company culture

The values, practices, and beliefs shared by both employer and employees can have a huge effect on mental health in the workplace. Make sure open communication and conversations around mental health are at the very top of your ‘company culture checklist’. Recognize the validity of ‘mental health days’ and offer flexible working to enable different lifestyles.

3. Have compassionate leadership

Being a good leader means utilizing the principles of trust, respect and compassion. The absence of empathy can result in low morale, little respect for management, and a culture of isolation. A compassionate leader should not only be aware of employee workloads, overtime, holidays and burnout, but show that they’re ready to listen and offer support, too.

4. Implement mindfulness

More and more companies across the world are adding mindfulness training to their employee wellness programs. Mindfulness has been shown to significantly enhance job satisfaction, psychological need satisfaction, and even emotional fatigue; further, it helps develop empathy and resilience, strengthens working relations, and opens the door to more comprehensive discussions about employee mental health.

5. Create a positive environment

Your office environment has a much bigger impact on mental health than you think. Sitting in tiny cubicles under fluorescent light will demoralize even the cheeriest employee, so try to ensure your office has plenty of natural light (and plants!). It should provide employees with every environment they need to work effectively – including areas for quiet concentration, and communal areas where team members can talk, build rapport and strengthen friendships. Ideally, you’ll also give employees the autonomy to choose the environment they know is best by offering remote working.

An ongoing effort

Mental health affects all of us in some way, and at work it’s employers who have the power to help. The thing to remember is that while speaking about mental health is instrumental in removing the stigma, it can’t solve the actual problem.

Mental health isn’t something that can be definitively “fixed”; it exists in constant flux. So you need to learn to manage employee mental health throughout your professional relationships, and keep providing ongoing commitment and investment to support it.

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