Mental Health Awareness Week

Mental Health Awareness Week

HR Director Sarah Simpkins asks: what does ‘awareness’ really mean in the workplace?

Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK is not a new thing; it is a national initiative that was first introduced by the Mental Health Foundation in 2001.  But our general ‘awareness’ of mental health as an employment issue has really only taken root in the last few years, and it’s possible that you are only just beginning to think about what it means for you, as a business owner or senior manager.

And what exactly does it mean?  Just because we are more socially ‘aware’ it doesn’t follow that we know how we apply this awareness practically in the workplace.  It doesn’t follow that we know what we should be doing, could be doing, must be doing in order to promote and maintain mental wellbeing at work.  So I thought I would to explore some basic questions and see if I can shed some light.

What is mental health?

We all have ‘mental health’ in the same way that we all have ‘physical health’.  Sometimes we are in good mental and physical shape and sometimes we are not.  If you are in good mental shape you can cope with the normal stresses of daily life but sometimes, for any of us, simple day to day events and experiences can feel tough.  

Our mental health fluctuates over time and we adopt differing coping strategies with varying levels of success.  Right now, our world feels unsettled and unsafe.  We are worried about climate change, terrorism, Brexit, and what will happen in the last episode of Game of Thrones.  It’s not surprising, I think, that at any one time 1 out of 6 of us will be experiencing mental health issues.

What are the knock on effects at work?

The implications of a workforce with poor mental health are: lower productivity, higher absenteeism, presenteeism (this is when people show up when they shouldn’t) and higher turnover.  The reported cost of mental health in the UK is between £1,205 and £1,560 per employee per year.  So, by virtue, simply, of being an employer, you are exposed to this risk.  You may also be exposed to the risk of a Health & Safety or Disability Discrimination based claim if your workplace is seen as causing or contributing to the mental health related problems of the workforce. 

The difficulty for you, though, is that unlike physical health and wellbeing, employees remain reluctant to talk openly about their mental health … so it may be hard for you to know or pre-empt issues that could arise.  It’s therefore important that you strive to create an open and supportive culture where employees do not feel inhibited about discussing with their line manager any stresses and anxieties they may be experiencing.  (And the challenge that is layered on top of this is that you know how to distinguish from ‘mental health’ as a reason, and ‘mental health’ as an excuse …)

How do we practically address ‘mental health awareness’ at work?

I’ve simplified the answer to this question with 3 key steps – for you to expand to fit your business appropriately:

1.         Understand what ‘mental health’ really means

This is the starting point for all senior managers so that they can recognise if they themselves or any of their direct reports or other colleagues are experiencing mental ill health.

2.         Define roles and responsibilities

Your employees need to know what your role and theirs is with regards to mental health at work.  You can include this in a handbook or have a separate policy.

As an employer, you have a responsibility to make sure your work environment supports the wellbeing of your employees such as:

  • the design of their jobs
  • the way they are managed and led
  • how comfortable they feel about raising issues or concerns
  • training available to them
  • benefits available for their wellbeing (which may include flexible working)

Employees have a responsibility to: 

  • communicate and treat each other with respect
  • work as a team and support each other with varying workloads
  • speak up if they are struggling or if they see someone else is in difficulty

3.            Develop your managers

Managers need to be competent and comfortable in having conversations about mental health, managing absences properly, and being able to listen and know where to refer a team member in difficulty.  They are not expected to be experts in mental health (and they should be actively discouraged from playing the psychologist) but they do need to be approachable and trusted.

In our view, the bottom line is that exercising common sense is a great place to start.  Being supportive without being intrusive and understanding what ‘good practice’ looks like will help line managers to support a healthy workplace culture and reduce the risks that are associated with mental ill-health at work. 

Mental health awareness is an important initiative and – if done properly – raising awareness at work can have long and lasting positive repercussions for your business as a whole.

If you or one of your senior managers would like to learn more on this topic please register your interest in our upcoming workshop on ‘the thin line between duty of care and disability discrimination’. Click here to find out more and to register.

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