CIPD’s Peter Cheese: HR’s role in improving mental health

On World Mental Health Day, HR teams have been reminded of the scale of the mental ill health “epidemic” and their role in creating healthier workplaces. But where exactly does HR’s responsibilities lie and can it make a real difference? Ashleigh Webber sat down with the CIPD’s Peter Cheese to find out.

While humans have always had mental health issues, how this is affected by work and the scale of the problem have only really been recognised in the last three to four years.

It’s a growing issue for employers; almost four in 10 UK workers experienced poor mental health because of their job in the past year according to a recent survey, with many citing pressure from hitting targets, heavy workload and lack of support as reasons for their poor wellbeing.

But while the term “health” might imply it is the responsibility of occupational health teams, challenging these cultures is arguably an HR issue.

“HR will always have a very profound role in this and HR needs to take that bigger perspective around culture and leadership, whereas occupational health may be looking more at the evidence-based interventions,” CIPD chief executive Peter Cheese tells Personnel Today.

“This is not about territory; this is about collaboration…fundamentally HR is there to enable things and we should be enabling [healthier] outcomes. I profoundly believe that that’s what HR should do.”

He says in the past 30 years work has been driven by economic output, efficiency, processes, rules and command and control. But the paradigm has shifted and the idea that an organisation’s sole purpose is to make money no longer holds true; work needs to be good for people and HR teams need to encourage senior business leaders to shift the focus away from profitability. Poor mental health costs employers £34.9bn per year in lost productivity, according to the Centre for Mental Health.

“If you look at the history of HR, has it really been championing the people or has it really become instruments of management?” he asks.

“HR needs to step up a bit and challenge [these cultures and working practices]. We know that there are many business leaders who are still quite sceptical about staff wellbeing and think ‘it’s not my responsibility if someone isn’t feeling good, their responsibility is to work when they’re here and get over whatever the problem is they have’.

“HR and other departments like occupational health have got to have the confidence to challenge these cultures and to educate business leaders from the top down as to why this is important and the difference it will make to business outcomes – which is where the evidence has to start.

“This is not some fad or some compliance issue. People are very easy to interpret it as a compliance tick-box exercise, but it isn’t.”

He says having healthy and happy employees is arguably the most important business outcome, for both individual organisations and society as a whole.

“It’s a human right. If you look at the US constitution it says there is a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These are not new ideas.

“We’ve lost sight of that and work and business has somehow got detached from humanity; it’s seen as this thing that we have to do and is all about making money.”

Employees are becoming more aware of the state of their mental health. According to YouGov research for workplace mental health platform Unmind, 65% of workers consider their mental health to be very important, compared to 44% who say the same of their physical health. One in five are actively “tracking” the state of their mental health.

This is not some fad or some compliance issue. People are very easy to interpret it as a compliance tick-box exercise, but it isn’t.”

With there being so many ideas around how employers can improve staff wellbeing, Cheese advises HR teams to keep things simple rather than try to offer too many support mechanisms at once. Improvement is often seen when employers tackle the root causes of work-related mental health issues, such as resourcing or workload.

“The first thing is really treating people like human beings and respecting the individual at work. HR professionals should encourage everybody to have conversations about their mental health and encourage managers at every level to start conversations with ‘how are you feeling?’ – it’s such a basic human question.”

Training programmes around resilience and mental health awareness hold value, but employers need to establish fundamental “building blocks” of healthier workplaces first, he explains.

“Taking those foundational steps are not difficult to do, but they do require a different way of talking and interacting at work. We need to recognise that we’re all human beings, we’re not robots that just turn up ready to work. My advice is to not make it complicated,” he says.

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