How HR can support employees’ mental health

Despite greater openness about mental health, the topic still remains a taboo in many workplaces

The costs of overlooking poor mental wellbeing are significant – both for the individuals concerned and for their employers. The government's Thriving at work report revealed that 15% of employed people have symptoms of an existing mental health condition, while a massive 300,000 lose their jobs each year because of mental health problems. These figures represent a loss of 91 million working days a year, costing the national economy up to £99 billion in the same period.

The need for better support mechanisms for sufferers of mental ill health is evident. There are several practical steps that can be taken to improve the chances of people both seeking help in the first instance, and then receiving the support they need.

Employing a top-down approach

Valuing mental health and wellbeing as core assets of your organisation is key to fostering a supportive working environment – particularly as mental health is more than just a medical issue; it affects the whole culture and productivity of the workplace.

Designing and implementing a mental health programme that provides training for staff – particularly senior executives – ensures managers are adequately trained to address, or at the very least recognise, a mental health issue. Developing effective support mechanisms for staff and ensuring they are visible and easily accessible is also crucial in encouraging employees to seek the help that they need. Figures suggest that just 20% of organisations’ employee wellbeing programmes are utilised by staff.

Education right across an organisation is also vital. A recent poll by the Institute of Directors found that less that one in five firms offer mental health training for managers, with a third of all employers saying they struggle to find the information they need to correctly support the mental wellbeing of their employees.

However, resources are readily available. The recently-unveiled Mental Health at Work project, for instance, provides access to resources, training and information for managers to help them provide support for employees.

Employing a top-down approach to stimulate conversation can reduce common misconceptions about mental health, and foster a culture that makes it easier for employees to openly discuss issues without fear of reprisal.

Bring experts into the workplace

Bringing in experts to teach techniques for tackling mental health issues can also promote good mental health in the workplace. Such schemes can help to educate staff about the symptoms characterising different issues like anxiety and depression, and teach them coping mechanisms they can employ to address personal mental health problems.

Workshops and classes are great ways to engage all members of the team with common issues. Interactive training programmes can help foster positive relationships, which are crucial for encouraging open dialogue about mental health between employees and line managers.

Using staff surveys to develop awareness

Conducting regular staff surveys is a valuable way of collecting and building data about employee mental health and tracking a company’s progress in improving wellbeing. Surveys are also a great way to get feedback; it gives staff the opportunity to anonymously voice their concerns and provide personal suggestions about how the company can better support those struggling with poor mental health. Fostering inclusivity by giving employees a voice is crucial to encouraging an open conversation about the topic.

Taking advantage of health technology

The 2017 Mental Health at Work report found that around three in every four employees with a mental health issue chose not to involve anyone at work, the main barriers cited being a reluctance to ‘make it formal’ and fears of negative consequences. Health tech has the potential to change this by offering new confidential avenues to access treatment that is online, flexible and easy to use outside of work hours.

Informing employees of alternative resources outside of the organisation can be particularly beneficial to those who are hesitant to reveal their struggles at work. Being able to speak to a professional discreetly outside of office hours ensures all employees have access to effective support mechanisms without the pressure of informing colleagues.

Reducing the stigma about mental health is the most effective way of making sure that employees feel able and willing to discuss their issues in the workplace. This is the first step to people getting help as and when they need it. And in order to accommodate those who are more hesitant when it comes to opening up about their struggles, it is important to provide information about alternative resources.

Zain Sikafi is CEO and co-founder of Mynurva