· 3 min read · Features

Five mental health at work resolutions for 2019


From loneliness and suicide issues to the adverse impact of constant change and work/life pressures, there are lots of challenges keeping mental health high on employers’ agendas

1. Help people cope with uncertainty

While HR professionals can’t eliminate the current climate of economic uncertainty or ongoing need for organisational change, they can influence whether or not people crumple under the weight of the challenges lying ahead. That’s because ‘grit’ – our ability to deal with setbacks and devise strategies for overcoming obstacles – is directly linked to our willingness to embrace failure.

Not only are people who feel they have ‘permission to fail’ more likely to step out of their comfort zone, ask for help, and learn from mistakes, they’re also less likely to suffer from the stress and anxiety that results when we unrealistically strive to get things right first time. Somewhat ironically, it’s only by giving people permission to fail that they gain the confidence to succeed.

2. Accept the NHS can’t cope

While physical health issues typically correct with medical care, time and rest, mental illness becomes more entrenched and harder to treat the longer someone is left unsupported. So by the time an employee gets to see their GP, then waits at least six weeks (and often much longer) to access NHS counselling or other mental health services, any acute mental health issues have typically spiralled into something much more serious.

Instead of adopting a ‘wait and see’ approach, employers including Nationwide and GWR for example, have already started to invest in ‘triage’ to identify which employees need treatment to recover, the likely cost of treatment and prognosis for recovery. They can then invest in treatment themselves where this costs less than paying for the employee to remain on sick leave.

3. Reduce the risk of suicide

As the government’s decision to appoint a suicide prevention minister in October highlights, the number of people taking their own life has reached unacceptable levels. By the end of today 12 people across England will have ended their life. That’s one person every two hours, or almost 4,500 people a year.

Unfortunately the focus on supporting them once they become suicidal is not the answer to the mental health crisis, because by the time someone wants to take their own life several opportunities to support them have already been missed.

A big focus for 2019 will therefore be to put in place better measures to support people in emotional distress from the earliest opportunity. Critical to this will be training managers to spot the symptoms of emotional distress: such as reduced eye contact, increased forgetfulness, tearful or angry outbursts, so that they can direct distressed individuals towards appropriate support before things get too much.

4. Create belonging to tackle loneliness

In addition to appointing a minister for loneliness the government has also invested £20 million to help tackle loneliness, after a survey showed that at least three-quarters of GPs in England see between one and five people a day whose main reason for coming in is that they are lonely.

With most people spending the majority of their time at work there is much that employers who are serious about tackling mental health can do to help over the coming year. These range from encouraging people to eat lunch together, instead of in isolation at their desks, to creating ‘virtual offices’ by inviting remote workers to log into collective chat rooms so they can greet each other and ask questions as they would in a shared office. In short, anything that increases the amount of positive social interaction people have at work.

5. Support new parents

About one in five women experience mental illness in the first six months after the birth of a baby, while one in 10 men are affected. The NHS recently announced mental health checks for new mothers and fathers experiencing depression or anxiety after the birth of a child.

So in 2019 expect to see employers doing more to support workers struggling to cope with the demands of becoming a new parent. A key focus will be allowing new fathers to work more flexibly in ways that won’t just help improve their mental health but also reduce the ‘mental load’ placed on mothers, helping to drive diversity and inclusion agendas.

Birgit Lundgren is head of clinical services at Validium