Five tips to encourage mental wellbeing in the workplace

If an employee is suffering from stress there are many ways the organisation can help them get through it. Nick Golding explores how mental health problems can affect a worker’s life and what employers can do to ease the pressure.

Last week, the CBI announced that mental health issues such as stress, anxiety and depression were the biggest cause of long-term workplace absence in the UK.

This week, research from the mental health charity Mind showed that, since the recession started, UK managers have placed workers under increased amounts of pressure, with almost half (48%) of the employees surveyed admitting that they are currently scared to take time off work for illness. Further, 41% admitted to being stressed or very stressed at work.

There are, it would seem, direct correlations between the economic downturn that has been affecting the UK for the past 18 months and stress levels among workers who are struggling to cope with the constant threat of pay cuts and redundancies.

Reducing the threat of mental illness across the workforce of an organisation does not require a great deal of effort from employers, says Mind. Small changes that employers and managers can easily implement can lead to healthier living, increased productivity and a greatly reduced chance of long-term sickness absence.

Below are five top tips that employers could encourage staff to take part in and improve their working day:

1. Connect: Take five minutes to do something for your colleagues, make a cup of tea or get them a drink.

2. Be active: Go for a walk at lunchtime or make some time to get some fresh air during the day.

3. Take notice: Be aware of how your colleagues are really feeling, ask them how they are and have a chat with them.

4. Learn: Take a few minutes to expand your mind; you could read a newspaper, magazine or book, or do a crossword.

5. Give: Build relations at work and get to know your colleagues better by hosting a breakfast to kick-start the working day.

The Mind report Taking care of business: mental health at work revealed that almost one-third (28%) of employees across England and Wales feel stressed by the threat of redundancy. This is something that senior management, despite having to operate in a tough economic environment, must address quickly, says Emma Mamo, policy and campaigns manager at the charity.

Case study 1

Claire is 25 and works as a research manager at a social research company.

Overview: As a result of the economic downturn, Claire’s employer has put a freeze on employment, and over the past six months her workload has significantly intensified. For the last two years members of staff at the social research firm have been leaving and have not been replaced, heaping more and more pressure on Claire, who is left to pick up the slack.

Work is now the most stressful feature of her life, and not just from 9am. It affects all areas of her life, from her social life and relationship to sleep and diet.

Claire says: “An average working day is 9am to 8pm, no breaks, no lunch. I feel like I just have to be working all the time. It’s constant, I feel like every second counts, so I don’t have time to talk to people, and I worry that they think I’m being rude. Even when I’m not at work, I’m thinking about it, worrying about how I’m going to get it all done. My managers know it’s a problem, but there’s not much they can do really.”

“We’re not talking about making huge changes, just having effective communication, good people-management skills, and having regular supervision so people can flag issues up to their bosses. Managers must be available to their staff because mental health issues can exist in every workplace, whether it is stress, anxiety or depression,” she adds. 

“Those managers and business leaders who feel that their time is better spent coping with growing business rather than managing their staff and effectively investing effort and money into their wellbeing, should get their priorities right.

“At this point in time, your staff are your biggest asset, and if you want them to be productive and engaged you need to invest in them. Consider the investment into training and recruitment of each employee, if they hit a problem and they fall out of the workplace you have to recruit someone new and train them up. It doesn’t make business sense.”

Clearly, this is about striking a balance between caring for employees so that they understand the company has supportive processes in place if they feel stressed or anxious about work, and ensuring the all-important business survival during the downturn.

According to Mind, businesses can help staff to improve their working day by making some small changes that range from leaving the workplace for a lunchtime break to enjoy some fresh air, to getting to know colleagues better by encouraging employees to come together over breakfast or lunch.

Other employers are going further and are actually putting in place rigid policies to track and support any employee that takes time off work because of mental health problems. The outsourcing firm Aon Hewitt is one example: following a health audit of its workforce revealing that direct and indirect costs of health problems to the company were £2,850 per employee per year, it decided to take action.

The employer relaunched some of its key healthcare benefits, including its 24-hour employee assistance programme (EAP) telephone helpline, to encourage more staff to acknowledge the fact that there is support available should they need it. This is the level of employee support that Mind believes will make for the right working environment where sufferers can open up and face their problems, instead of clocking up masses of sick days.

Mamo said: “If staff are valued they will feel more confident to speak up earlier and this will prevent problems from spiralling out of control; they won’t take sick leave and will stay in the workplace.”

Case study 2

John is 34 and works in the accounting department of a large printing firm.

Overview: Although the cause of John’s recurring bouts of panic attacks and depression are not clear, his employer has played an important role in helping him bring normality back to his life. Having been signed off work for more than four months, he felt under no pressure to rush back and was also supported financially during this time.

Returning to work was tough, and John has noticed shortfalls in understanding from co-workers at the printing company since he returned.

John says: “My employer was actually really good to me and supported me the whole time I was off with full pay and no pressure to hurry back. I was off for four and a half months in total. Coming back was also very challenging. Everyone was very nice but many people just don’t understand what mental illness is and how it affects so many people. In some instances I felt as though I have been spoken to in a very patronising way. Even though I’ve been at the company for nearly nine years and been very successful I feel like I’m starting again, building back people’s confidence in me. Having been back for a couple of months things are returning to normal, but it hasn’t been easy.”

Importantly, line managers at Aon Hewitt were also put on training programmes to learn more about stress and how to identify signs of it in the workplace at an early stage. Additionally, Aon Hewitt became committed to monitoring and tracking absence, putting specific triggers in place so that sick employees could be assessed and then given the support that best suits their individual situation, which encourages a swift return to work.

James Kenrick, practice manager for healthcare consulting at Aon Hewitt, explains: “Everyone has a ‘be healthy with Hewitt’ card, which tries to get them to understand that it’s ok to be unwell. We do road shows to raise awareness; we have internal communications telling people how we’re getting on, including stress management advice, case studies, promotion of the EAP, even basic stuff like new posters, depending on the time of year.”

These new measures have not gone unnoticed by the finance director at Aon Hewitt, because over the past two years the firm has managed to save £700,000 per year and reduce average absence days from 6.3 days to 4.3 days.

Psychological support expert Eugene Farrell of healthcare provider AXA PPP explains: “You don’t create a positive workplace culture just by saying so – you have to nurture it by treating your people well, promoting their health and wellbeing and also by being there to support them when things get them down. Helping people to deal with the pressures in their lives is one of the best investments an employer can make.”

It seems then that, instead of seeing the mental health of their workforce as an extra expense, employers should realise that supporting staff wellbeing could reap big rewards with very little effort.

And with the recession still piling on the stress on many workers, it may be an investment they can’t afford to ignore.

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