Helen Smith: Workplace mental health – how to be caring, not just compliant

helen smith

The average person today is said to spend roughly a third of their life at work, so it is no surprise that the environment we work in can have a huge impact on our wellbeing. In fact, the World Health Organisation stated in May 2019 that negative work environments can lead to both physical and mental health problems, and aggravate any existing issues an employee has.

In November 2017, Benenden Health interviewed more than 1,000 employees across a range of sectors and regions to understand the key issues surrounding mental health in the workplace, and the implications for both employees and employers.

Modern day pressures, combined with ‘always connected’ lifestyles, make stress, anxiety and other mental health issues more prevalent today. The survey revealed that the majority of employees (70%) have suffered with a condition related to mental health at some point in their lives.

Despite this, less than half of employees say that their current employer offers a mental health or wellbeing policy.

Caring or compliant?

All employers have a legal duty of care to every employee, requiring them to take reasonable steps to ensure satisfactory health, safety and wellbeing at work. However, relying on legislation alone can create a tick-box culture where employee support is limited to specific cases, and a lack of genuine care can be shown.

The result of this can be unresolved mental health issues for employees, and it is employers that will bear the knock-on costs of absenteeism, lost productivity and staff turnover once these impacts hit the bottom line. Almost half of the employees Benenden Health surveyed would look for alternative jobs if their employer did not provide enough support around their mental health.

On the other hand, employers that show a real commitment to wellbeing will have a competitive advantage over those that do not. Going the extra mile to support employee mental health is likely to build trust and loyalty, increase engagement and productivity, and contribute to a glowing organisational reputation.

It does not need to be complicated or costly, either; there are some very simple steps employers can take to show their employees they care.

This three-staged approach can help employers support their workforce before, during and after any health issues occur.


Employers should create a culture of openness, in which mental health is normalised and employees feel comfortable talking about it and asking for the support they might need.

Prioritising work-life balance will show employees that their personal time is valued and their wellbeing is as important as their productivity.

Employers can work with a mental health professional to develop a suitable mental wellbeing policy for their organisation, and then share it with employees.

Providing mental health training can be key; if managers and relevant members of staff feel confident in matters around mental health, this will help underpin the change towards a more open culture.


Professional helplines or 24/7 employee assistance programmes (EAPs) are convenient and cost-effective ways to provide employees with access to qualified professionals at any time.

Employers should make workplace adjustments and provide additional support. A mental health policy should include guidelines on workplace adjustments that can be made for members of staff struggling with particular mental health issues.

Being flexible where possible, and considering offering some time off where appropriate, can make a difference. Even a short period of leave from work can help an employee who is experiencing mental health issues, such as situational depression.

Employees may need time off for health appointments, or need more breaks throughout the day. Remote working and flexibility with hours can also help individuals with mental health conditions, so organisations should consider this where appropriate.


A phased return after time off can help an employee ease back into work, and working closely with their line manager for the first month could help them identify when they are ready to take on more responsibility.

A tailored action plan can help the employee to proactively manage their mental health at work. Knowing there are supportive steps in place, should they need them, can also offer peace of mind for both the manager and the employee.

Just like physical health, mental health needs tending to in order to maintain. Employers should continually emphasise the importance of employees’ mental wellbeing by promoting an open culture with ongoing training and events, such as meditation workshops.

Helen Smith is chief commercial officer and business sponsor for wellbeing strategy at Benenden Health