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How HR can make better use of new WHO mental health guidelines

There’s no doubt, the new World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines are a milestone. At last, a bold and bracing statement of the challenge facing the world: there is no health without mental health, and workplaces play their own, fundamental part in the overall picture.

What matters now is how the WHO’s statements and recommendations translate for UK employers, what they mean for us and how we do things. Because we have to keep in mind this is a universal document, adopting pan-global terms and language — some of which could be misinterpreted.

That means an opportunity for the workplace mental health sector in the UK, the counsellors and EAP professionals working with staff and their day-to-day issues, to re-emphasise what’s working, and what we need to be doing more of to improve the mental health of our workforce.

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The guidelines say workplaces amplify issues that have a negative affect on mental wellbeing through feelings of inequality, discrimination and bullying.

They recommend organisations take action on issues such as heavy workloads, negative behaviours, and management training on how to prevent creating a stressful work environment.

Employers are also encouraged to review how to best accommodate the needs of workers with mental health conditions and support their return to work.

The phrasing of the WHO guidelines is based around the need for a psychosocial approach (the interaction of social, cultural and environmental factors on states of mind), making use of evidence-based methods as the platform to progress.

Broad terms like these have been recognised and welcomed by the UK’s mental health charities, the Health and Safety Executive and large employers as being in tune with their general agendas. Catch-all terms can be useful for a shared, international understanding, but sometimes also unintentionally exclusive. As a result, the value of workplace counselling — the central role and importance of EAPs — aren’t mentioned.

Just talking in terms of psychosocial and evidence-based leads to a narrowing of thinking; in other words, it could be assumed to mean channelling employees only through evidence-based treatments like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and little else.

Surely it must be assumed that psychosocial includes EAP and counselling, and that needs spelling out to HR. It’s also interesting to note that mindfulness gets a specific mention (presumably because it has an evidence base), while ignoring the vast evidence base for counselling.

All of us working in the area of workplace mental health are intent on ensuring interventions make a difference to people’s lives. And we know that EAPs and counselling work. They work because they take an open-minded approach to the different origins of problems, the different levels and stages of their effects on people, and the very different kinds of support and advice that will help individuals. There is no leap to a diagnosis of ‘illness’; there is no hard labelling of issues or medicalisation of language.

We need to be careful when it comes to seeing mental health as a kind of binary problem — you’re healthy or you’re unhealthy — rather than what it is, a flux of human challenges that can be talked through and addressed, especially when there are early conversations and awareness of specific problems.

To be effective in really helping organisations with their productivity and performance, there has to be a clear-sighted view of how workplaces affect states of mind among employees. There is no point investing in wellbeing strategies, duvet days, fruit baskets and more flexible ways of working, if people keep going back to the same toxic environment, or keep on feeling overworked and powerless. This is why we have an anomaly. Organisations have never been so focused on wellbeing, and yet we are seeing burnout rising exponentially. Because employers aren’t addressing the real issues.

The WHO guidelines are a massively positive development, for awareness and keeping mental health high on policy agendas. Now it’s up to employers and their expert partners to be clear on what’s needed and what works, and deliver practical, real-world interventions.

Eugene Farrell is chair of Employee Assistance Professionals Association UK and Kris Ambler is workforce lead of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy