Helen Smith: Stop mental health becoming a tick-box culture

Helen Smith

With a growing national emphasis on mental health, UK employers have never had a better opportunity to start a conversation with their employees about their mental wellbeing.

Our Mental health in the workplace report, published in November 2017, found that seven in 10 employees have suffered from a condition related to mental health but, despite this, many UK businesses seem to be largely diminishing the importance of mental health in the workplace.

Currently, there appears to be an atmosphere of confusion in which employees often do not have, or do not know of their employer having, an official mental health or workplace wellbeing policy in place. If we want a healthier, happier and more productive workforce, this has to change.

 Prevalence of mental health conditions in the workplace

The research found that, of the 70% of employees who have suffered from a condition associated with mental health, four in 10 of those (42%) employees have suffered from stress. When asked to share the main cause of mental health issues in the workplace, the top three reported reasons were: Increased workload (38%), financial concerns (18%) and workplace bullying (10%).

It is common knowledge that high stress can take its toll on mental health and indeed over half of those surveyed (55%) said their job has become more stressful in the last five years.

What effect does this have on the workplace?

Poor mental health does not just affect employees, it can impact organisations and their bottom line as well.

Just under a third (32%) of respondents have taken time off work related to a mental health condition and 44% of those have taken over 10 days off.

As well as increasing absenteeism levels, nearly half (46%) of those surveyed said they would look for alternative employment if their employer did not provide support in relation to mental health conditions. It is particularly important with younger employees.

The emergence of a tick-box culture

Despite a large proportion of employees suffering from mental health conditions, it is rarely talked about in the workplace.

Mental health seems to remain shrouded in secrecy and shame, despite the best efforts of mental health charities and campaigners to achieve the opposite. It is hardly surprising to learn that less than one in 10 employees would confide in their employer if they were suffering from a mental health condition.

What is more worrying is that more than half of employees surveyed either do not have an official mental health or workplace wellbeing policy (28%) or they do not know if they have one (26%) and less than one quarter of employees said their employer engages regularly with them on issues of mental health (24%).

What employers can do to help

It seems clear that in order to remove the layers of guilt and embarrassment many employees feel, employers need to create an open and supportive culture that encourages people to talk about their mental health. Most employees currently would not talk to their bosses about their wellbeing, however, more than half (52%) said they would appreciate help and support from their employer.

Here are four ways employers can help support employees’ mental wellbeing:

First, create a mental health policy. If they do not have a formal policy, this is an obvious and crucial first step. By creating a mental health policy, employers send a strong signal that mental health in the workplace matters and that they will take it seriously. A policy should make it crystal clear that opening up about mental health matters will result in help and support, including reviewing work load, and offering time off where possible, rather than discrimination.

Once they have set up their policy, it is important to ensure that all staff are engaged and aware of what support is available to them. Managers should also be made aware of what their responsibilities are in helping to embed the policy. They could hold sessions to take their teams through the detail and continue to host refresher sessions each year, and when new employees start.

Second, provide access to a 24/7 confidential helpline. Almost seven out of 10 (69%) employees surveyed said they would use a confidential mental health helpline provided by their current or future employer if they were experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition. This is simple to implement through an employee assistance programme and provides a workforce with a practical tool to help proactively manage their mental health.

Third, ensure a good work-life balance. Employees need adequate time away from work to recharge; if they do not, they will risk burn out and poor mental health. Businesses need to make it clear that a work-life balance is important; this could be done by setting reasonable communication expectations outside of office hours, offering flexible-working arrangements and encouraging employees to take lunch breaks and use their allocated holiday time.

Finally, introduce mental health training. Eight out of 10 employees (83%) surveyed said they thought it would be helpful if all businesses provided mental health awareness training to line managers to help them spot, and support, employees who are struggling with mental health issues.

Helen Smith is commercial director and business sponsor for wellbeing strategy at Benenden