It’s not just about mental health awareness

Handle with care: employers need a culture change to improve mental health
Photo: Angelo Cordeschi

With the proliferation of recent reports on mental health and stress in the workplace, Mental Health Awareness Week couldn’t be more timely. But Vicky Wilson-Theaker warns that employers need a culture change to improve mental health, not just an awareness programme that ticks the box.

The CIPD UK Working Lives survey, published last month, showed one in four workers (25%) feel their job negatively affects their mental health, while nearly a third (30%) say their workload is too much. Just over half said that they feel under excessive pressure, exhausted or regularly miserable at work.

This month, another CIPD report – based on its annual Health and Wellbeing at Work survey – showed that a third more respondents have noted an increase in mental health issues than last year.

While much has been written about this growing issue, less has been communicated about the practical steps to resolve it. There is a potential danger that organisations will go through a tick-box exercise of creating mental health awareness programmes, while little change is actually embedded within organisations to bring real solutions – rendering the interventions unsupportive and meaningless. What is needed is commitment and real engagement, with line managers involved at all levels.

Mental Health Awareness Week

Stress: are we coping?

The role of HR teams and their commitment  to enforce effective change policies and engagement strategies will be crucial in reducing stress and other mental health issues in the workplace and, ultimately, in improving employee productivity and business performance.

So what makes for effective policies and engagement programmes? Here are some ideas that you should be considering:

  • Conduct a stress audit. This should identify the roles or parts of the organisation where stress levels are a particular concern.
  • Review your company’s work culture. Is it a long-hours and presenteeism culture? Studies show that flexible and supportive cultures focused on individual achievement have happier workplaces.
  • Promote a culture of good mental health within your organisation and start the conversation. If employees know it’s a topic that’s openly talked about, there’s less stigma attached to it and employees will know there’s support available if and when an issue does emerge.
  • Introduce a mental health policy with enforceable measures that support it. These may include company-wide anti-bullying and discrimination policies, flexible working arrangements, EAPs and budgets for stress-busting physical activities and social events. Some organisations have also introduced company-wide rules to reduce non-productive meetings time and reduce email overload.
  • Work with line managers to train them to spot problems and to know how to lead the conversation to help their team members open up and then look for solutions. The charity, Mind, has courses specifically aimed at employers to help with this.
  • Nominate mental health ambassadors who have either experienced mental health problems themselves or have a particular reason for wanting to create more awareness or understanding. This would give employees someone to go to who isn’t their line manager.
  • Signpost your support services. Ensure your programmes are clearly signposted and linked together so it’s easy for employees to see where to go for help – whether they have money worries, work concerns, physical health issues or could benefit from mindfulness sessions, employee assistance programmes and other services.

The most important measure is to engage with line managers on mental wellbeing. This could start with training them to recognise the typical symptoms of employee stress, anxiety or depression – such as changes in behaviour, mood or interaction with colleagues; changes in their standard of work, or focus on tasks; appearing tired, anxious or withdrawn and reduced interest in tasks they previously enjoyed; and an increase in sickness absences and/or turning up late to work.

HR can then support line managers by ensuring they are asking the right questions and taking remedial actions:

  • Review job roles: Do employees have clearly defined job descriptions and objectives, with development opportunities to help them feel more confident and able to cope, as well as keeping them engaged and satisfied in their role
  • Monitor workload: Are employees stretched too thin with too much responsibility and insufficient resources or management support? Line managers should ensure their team members aren’t struggling with sheer volumes of work and tight deadlines
  • Dig a bit deeper: Sometimes it will be life outside of work that’s causing the stress or depression and making employees unable to cope with their normal working day. Line managers can help identify this and then do what they can in the workplace to help them through.

In one of our client organisations, an employee survey highlighted workplace stress and time management as a significant issue. Instead of tackling this in isolation, they took a holistic approach that not only covered physical health and nutrition, but time management and life priorities.

In addition, they addressed the internal culture of back to back meetings, long hours and excessive use of email. When the next engagement survey came round they found improvements in many of the areas around workplace stress as a result. They’d equipped people to deal with life’s pressures, made them more resilient through a healthier life and given them permission to challenge the way things had been done, giving people more autonomy and control.

As this example shows, it is indeed possible to make positive change. With HR’s skill and senior management’s commitment, organisations can make a real difference to the mental wellbeing of their people and their workplace.

Vicky Wilson-Theaker

About Vicky Wilson-Theaker

Vicky Wilson-Theaker is a consultant at employee engagement specialists like minds.
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