In 2016 Unum and The Mental Health Foundation produced Added value: mental health as a workplace asset. The report revealed that by 2030 the challenges arising from staff mental health concerns could cost the UK economy £32.7 billion.
Many companies are introducing and championing workplace mental health strategies, but how can employers ensure mental health support is not just a 'tick in the box’ and that it fully benefits all employees?
Promote ‘safe spaces’ and cognitive hygiene
'Cognitive hygiene' is the ability to effectively manage negative thinking to prevent exacerbating mental health issues. This involves encouraging employees to learn skills such as mindfulness, meditation and keeping a good work/life balance to help them cope in difficult situations. Employers should then teach staff how to use sustainable daily actions to remind themselves to continue these practices regularly.
Some businesses have found the creation of ‘safe spaces’ – areas designed for groups to relax and take their minds off work – to be helpful in alleviating stress. However, offerings don’t need to be overly lavish to have a positive impact. It could simply be creating a small, designated office area or even a bit of garden space where teams are encouraged to take breaks.
Create tailored solutions
No one person is the same and companies should try to give managers the latitude to shape mental health support according to the needs of their teams. The Financial Times’ Health at Work report shows ill health affects corporate productivity through employee absenteeism and presenteeism – when staff turn up to work but are ineffective when they get there.
Promoting more flexible work patterns, such as enabling employees to take time off for their mental health when needed or allowing remote working during difficult periods, can mean individuals are able to continue their roles effectively, as they can engage with work tasks when in the right frame of mind to do so.
Boost internal education
Bupa research has revealed one in three line managers admit they would struggle to detect mental health issues in the workplace, but it’s imperative managers have the training to maintain positive staff relationships and ensure their team members are able to perform well.
Training should not only focus on reactive measures but also teach managers to spot ‘triggers’, to hold sensitive conversations, and know how to signpost to effective support.
Some may benefit from being sent away on a one or two-day course, but many others will get significant benefit from a lunchtime or breakfast session. Offering short and frequent training opportunities will also ensure maximum attendance.
Encourage open dialogue
Creating an environment where mental health is discussed openly among employees can be one of the best ways to lessen its taboo.
Establish a mental health champions network to combat negative reactions and encourage open workplace dialogue. Businesses can also introduce employee assistance programmes (EAPs) for those who may need more advanced support. EAPs offer direct, confidential contact with experts who can support individuals with areas causing emotional distress; from family issues to work-related problems, addiction and mental illness.
To create a positive environment supporting mental health you need to build a general culture of health, combining preventative and reactive programmes for your employees. There is no 'silver bullet' but the most important ingredient for success is a commitment from the top down to invest in employees’ physical and mental wellbeing.
Liz Walker is HR director at Unum UK