The management of mental health at work

We were recently introduced to Dr Maria Hudson of Essex Business School, who published an in depth study into the management of mental health at work, which was commissioned by ACAS (Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service) in 2016. Here is a summary of some of the key points, and for the full report you can download it from the resources page of our website here.

Providing good support for employees can significantly reduce days lost due to stress, anxiety, and depression in the workforce, and consequently affect productivity.

The support is not just about ‘tackling mental illness’: it is important to recognise that wellbeing has many aspects, and it matters whether employees perceive there to be organisational support for them to be physically active, eat healthily, and live stress free, for example. A helpful way to frame it is building emotional wellbeing, or emotional resilience.

An emotional wellbeing policy is a good start, but this is the easiest part. In fact, while many companies have “mental health policies”, many are not effectively or consistently implemented.

In this research which included organisations from different sectors and of different sizes, some key issues were identified in implementing a good company policy and turning it into a supportive workplace culture. These are summarised below.

  • A wellbeing policy needs to start from the top: employees can tell if it is just lip service. Senior management should lead by example to send the message that they are serious, and plans need to be supported by resources.
  • Delivering a good wellbeing policy often requires non-judgemental and supportive communication about difficult subjects. Managers need regular training and practice to be open-minded, and build honest communication into their culture, learning how to counter the misconceptions and stigma that exist around “mental health”.
  • Don’t underestimate the value of co-production! Listening to employees and consulting them about decisions helps them feel more engaged, valued, understood, and in control of their own wellbeing. It’s about empowerment.
  • Empowering employees means allowing them to take the lead on their own mental health (e.g. building routines), while providing the resources and support for them to do so.
  • Consult employees with lived experience of mental health issues, as they often have valuable insight.
  • This can also help to identify intersectional issues (e.g. barriers to wellbeing that arise from employees).
  • It’s important to remember that a one-size-fits-all policy rarely works: small issues for one person are insurmountable problems for another. People managers need to maintain regular, inclusive communication and consultation—this is also critical so that staff recognise the interventions that are in place to support them.
  • Informal social support can be critical: this can be enabled through work buddies, with neutral spaces for conversation (or the online equivalent via zoom etc). Close-knit staff groups can pick up on each other’s health and help to support each other.
  • Monitor and evaluate the actions taken, but be sure to give space for trying new approaches.
  • And once you have them, sharing good testimonials from employees goes a long way.

These are not easy steps to take, but a wellbeing policy without proper implementation and monitoring can risk:

  • Negative emotions from employees towards the company.
  • Lack of trust in the company and feelings of betrayal.
  • Employees feeling excluded and building an ‘us vs. them’ atmosphere in the workplace.
  • Loss of personal control and autonomy in work.

All of which are detrimental to productivity.

A quote from the paper picks up on this point:

Even where the outcomes of mental health initiatives cannot be evaluated, they may still be worth doing because of the positive benefits generated by empowering staff to engage with their mental health.”