Shaun Davis: How can employers provide support for mental wellbeing?

Regardless of what we do or who we are, mental wellbeing is an issue that touches us all, directly or indirectly through friends, family and colleagues.

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Having the right support to maintain positive mental health, and feeling confident to talk openly about the issue is critical for our wellbeing.

On behalf of Business in the Community’s Wellbeing at Work movement, I recently hosted a discussion with former cabinet secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell considering the steps that employers need to take to improve people’s wellbeing.

Spending time doing things that we enjoy has a positive impact on wellbeing, so ensuring that we are engaged and motivated to enjoy our work is vital. Employers have a huge responsibility to support the wellbeing of their employees, including their mental health. It is a must for any organisation that is committed to its people and to being a positive force for good in society.

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We are becoming more open as a society and topics that were previously considered taboo are talked about freely. Lord O’Donnell pointed out that with the government increasingly showing that it wants to take steps to create parity between physical and mental health, there has never been a better time to encourage business leadership on the issue.

Encourage senior leadership

Senior leaders are massively important in acting as role models for change, speaking honestly about their own experiences of mental health and even simple things such as how they manage their own stress, helping to highlight that this issue affects us all.

Lord O’Donnell highlighted the importance of gaining perspective on problems that arise in the workplace as an important starting point for managing pressure effectively, and how leaders are well placed to pass on these skills and techniques to employees.

Too often however, people still feel that being open about mental health is career-limiting; we still have lots to do to counter the idea that there is nothing we can do to break down the stigma around mental health. Getting more businesses to show transparency around mental health support for their staff and encouraging leaders to be open is going to require a boldness and confidence to do things differently – but it is the right thing to do.

Empower line managers

Lord O’Donnell agreed that, in any organisation, the role of a line manager is vital. They have a responsibility to make sure people are supported and are also well placed to spot any warning signs that something might be wrong.

The best line managers are those that bring good people on and prioritise the simple things, such as giving people constructive feedback one-on-one, encouraging people with positive praise and raising their aspirations.

These are things many of us may take for granted and which can easily be overlooked but which can have a significant impact on wellbeing. A simple ‘thank you’ for a job well done can be just the recognition an employee is looking for.

Rewards and incentives of course play a part in helping to keep people motivated but they are not the only contributor, they must work in tandem with positive, personal relationships between line managers and their employees.

Approach challenges creatively

Businesses also need to think about new ways of talking the currency of people and understanding how people can be supported to perform at their best while remaining well. Lord O’Donnell addressed the massive need to champion the benefits of interpersonal skills such as empathy in the workplace, and we should be rewarding those who are thinking creatively about these challenges. When it comes to presenting the business case for investing in wellbeing support, it is the human stories that get through to people like you and me.

Lord O’Donnell also suggested that introducing a comprehensive national wellbeing indicator would provide a critical tool to assess whether work is effective in serving its ultimate purpose in helping us to lead happier and healthier lives. This could consider benchmarking other influences on people’s wellbeing at work: their level of autonomy, control and how they manage stress. Encouraging all organisations to ask one simple question each year would be a step in the right direction: has your organisation improved the wellbeing of its employees or not?

In an ideal world everybody would be able to talk openly about their own mental health. We need to make it simple for businesses to do the right thing for their employees, showing the right leadership and creating imaginative, practical solutions to help people stay physically and mentally well at work.

Shaun Davis is group director of safety, health, wellbeing and sustainability at Royal Mail Group.