Gillian Connor: What can employers do to better support emotional wellbeing in the workplace?

Gillian Connor

Employers are increasingly taking an interest in the emotional wellbeing of their employees, not least because of the economic case for it. Mental health and employers: The case for investment, published by Deloitte in October 2017, demonstrated the huge cost of absenteeism, presenteeism and staff turnover caused by mental health problems. Presenteeism accounted for half the £40 billion cost to employers per year, suggesting that employees are still not comfortable talking about mental health in the workplace.

Rethink Mental Illness, which is one of the four charities making up Mental Health UK, is contacted every day by employers that want to do more to support their employees but are unsure where to start. They often report limited knowledge around mental health and a fear of doing or saying the wrong thing, especially around a subject that can still be taboo.

Stigma is a problem; this makes it even more important that any organisation starts from an inclusive position. This means recognising that we all have mental health, just as we all have physical health, and that our mental health can fluctuate. The best employers will promote the message that mental health is everyone’s business and they will have a clear leadership-backed plan for achieving this.

One of the most important things an employer can do is to equip line managers with the knowledge, skills and confidence to have supportive conversations around mental health. A good line manager has a good rapport with their team and is in a unique position to spot the signs and offer support when someone is struggling. Training can include soft management skills, but also legal duties, such as those around offering reasonable adjustments.

Employers can also encourage staff to be more supportive. Workplace peer support or champion schemes are becoming more common. When introduced correctly, employees are clear on their role as active listeners and signposters, rather than counsellors or psychotherapists. They can be a valuable support to line managers, or to colleagues who are uncomfortable about sharing too much.

Champions can also help to promote common initiatives, such as employee assistance programmes (EAPs). Uptake for these can be low, partly because people are not aware of the services they offer, which often include counselling.

As individuals, we must take responsibility for our own mental health, regardless of whether we have a mental health condition. Nevertheless, employers can support this by upskilling people in resilience, through training or other resources, and helping staff to be aware of what keeps them mentally well. Our charity encourages every individual to have a wellbeing action plan, for example, which sets out what helps us stay healthy and what can trigger us to feel less well.

Small steps, repeated often, can go a long way. If all staff are prepared to ask, “how are you?” sincerely and be prepared for a sincere answer, as well as be prepared to give a sincere answer themselves, it is an important mark of an organisation that supports the emotional wellbeing of its employees.

Gillian Connor is head of policy and partnerships at Mental Health UK