How HR can take a preventative approach to mental health and wellbeing

Nigel Sullivan, chief sustainability and people officer, Bupa shares some tips ahead of World Mental Health Day.

As the social and economic factors effecting mental health continue to change, it’s encouraging to see many companies taking steps to ensure their health and wellbeing initiatives reflect ongoing challenges – for example, burnout and long-Covid – and developing issues, such as the economic environment and cost of living crisis.

While traditional actions such employee assistance programmes and signposted to resources or services that can provide help and advice in this space are all key components of workplace mental health strategies, there is a strong argument, highlighted by the CIPD and others, to increase the focus on preventative measures that can help reduce the risk of poor mental health.

‘Mental health is a universal human right’ is this year’s World Mental Health Day theme, with the World Health Organisation calling on stakeholders to share ideas and drive actions that promote and protect everyone’s mental health.

As a business looking at how we keep people from falling ill and driving advances in preventative healthcare, focusing on how leaders, managers and colleagues can prevent mental health problems, and protect good mental health, is an important part of our approach at Bupa.

We know we don’t have all the answers, but we can share some reflections on steps we’re taking that can help safeguard mental health in the workplace.


Help managers to create mentally safe and healthy work environments

Managers have a critical role to play in creating a positive and supportive working environment where employees feel able to share how they’re feeling with colleagues.

This is supported by recent research from UKG which found that managers have just as much of an impact on people’s mental health as their spouse or partner (69%).

Investing in good people managers can create a sense of community and connection environment where people can speak up if they’re struggling.

Managers impact mental health as much as spouses

Leaders and HR teams can also ensure managers have the right tools, training, and resources so that they have the confidence to start conversations around mental wellbeing with their teams.

This can help create a confidential and trusting space for employees to share their experiences, and enable them to seek any further support they might need.


Encourage employees to engage with wellbeing tools

Managers and leaders should encourage teams to leverage mental health tools and frameworks that support positive behaviours across a range of factors: from good work/life balance, diet, sleeping habits and exercise, to reframing negative interactions and remembering to be kind to ourselves.

At Bupa, we designed a mental health tool to get the best out of your performance but also identify the signs of burnout, called 'personal energy', which looks at wellbeing holistically including social, physical, financial and mental health pillars that impact overall wellbeing. This tool gives employees a barometer to recognise their signs of burnout and how to intervene.

Teams are introduced to the tool through a personal energy session which encourages them to reflect with colleagues on different personal or professional factors and situations which might get neglected causing poor health and wellbeing.


Tailor your approach to different markets

Global organisations must be mindful of how mental health is addressed across different geographical and cultural markets, and create wellbeing frameworks that take this into account.

How to keep up with the changing mental health priorities of HR

Diverse workforces and roles will require tailored approaches to mental health; factoring this into your wellbeing strategy could help minimise risk to mental health issues for people from different cultures and backgrounds around the world. Just as positive mental health and wellbeing looks different for everyone, so does the conversation around it.


Check-in with your employees

Regularly running anonymous surveys that specifically address mental health and wellbeing, is an excellent way to temperature check if a business is moving in the right direction. For example, at Bupa, we run our people engagement survey Pulse to our 82,000 people regularly, which collects anonymous feedback on a number of areas including mental health and wellbeing which helps us improve our employee support and culture.


Reassess the basics

Low resource, lack of prioritisation, high or mismanaged workload, as well as poor role design and lack of clarity around responsibilities can be quick contributors to declining mental health.

Understanding the spectrum of mental health support needs at work

While investing in employee support frameworks, leaders and HR teams can take meaningful steps to ensure employees are set up for success in their roles.

That could mean reassessing your onboarding process for new hires; outlining expectations and the support available if you need help at the start of a new role; frequently assessing workload and monitoring for signs of burnout across teams; to providing relevant training modules and implementing initiatives that provide ongoing opportunities for people to develop their skills.


Safeguarding good mental health

Not all mental health and wellbeing issues can be prevented but taking a positive approach can help reduce the risk of problems developing, and create a positive and productive workplace environment where employees can thrive.

Reactive measures remain a vital part of wellbeing strategies but a shift towards actions that safeguard good mental wellbeing should also be seen as a priority.

Nigel Sullivan is chief sustainability and people officer at Bupa