When it comes to the workplace, there’s a lot of ‘tick boxing’.
Whether it’s compliance, health and safety or mental health, workplaces can fall into a routine of viewing things as an obligation rather than a necessity.
In offices and other workplaces across the UK, there is a culture of confusion for employees around their employer’s official stance on mental health – so a Samaritans poster probably isn’t going to cut it.
A poor approach to employee mental health doesn’t just impact employees, it’s detrimental to your bottom line as well.
Absenteeism (being absent from work) and presenteeism (putting aside physical and mental ailments to attend work) costs UK employers around £42 billion per year1.
Here’s the issue…
If you do a quick Google search about mental health in the workplace, the top results look something like this:
“Can you be fired for taking time off for mental health?”
“Can your employer sack you for mental health?”
“Do you have to disclose mental health for your employer?”
The main takeaway of these results? Employees are confused, concerned and mistrustful about how their employer might approach their mental health.
Performative action (we’re looking at you, World Mental Health Day poster) only increases the perception that an employer is thinking ‘we know everyone is talking about mental health, but we’re unwilling to invest in it, or embed it into our workplace culture’.
Shouting about it doesn’t make it true.
In cases where an organisation shouts about its mental health policy across social media only to ignore it until the next mental health day, it makes the message clear as day to employees that their employers don’t actually care about their mental health.
They just want to look as though they do.
It isn’t just a fear, it’s a reality.
1 in 10 employees who have disclosed a mental health problem have been dismissed, demoted or disciplined, with 1 in 4 fearing negative consequences if they make their mental health issues formal2.
In a workplace, the last message any employer should be wanting to send to employees is that they don’t genuinely care or consider mental health beyond a tick boxing exercise.
With 15% of employees saying their workplace didn’t have a HR or Occupational Health function in the workplace, it’s no surprise why there seems to be confusion.
Whether it’s work-related stress, high workload, financial concerns or issues with relationships in a workplace, a healthier and happier workforce can only happen with change.
Why does it matter to organisations?
The reason why mental health can often be approached in a dismissive, reductive way is because organisations might not acknowledge the impact that poor mental health has on their bottom line.
As mentioned above, the costs of absenteeism and presenteeism cost employers a staggering amount, but there’s also employee turnover to consider – which costs employers around £9 billion3.
When considering the effort necessary for onboarding new staff up to a company standard, it’s not a stretch to say that poor mental health is detrimental to most aspects of a business.
As a knock-on effect, the innovation, creativity and productivity of a company are all affected on a large scale.
So, how can things change?
First things first – mental health isn’t a one and done deal.
It needs to be part of an integrated, maintained plan or strategy, including in the workplace culture.
Rather than putting the responsibility on line managers who might lack the confidence or ability to handle mental health support, then passing it on to HR or Occupational Health professionals, you can begin with embedding a plan into your workplace that integrates all aspects (and people).
Here are some steps to take to make mental health in the workplace a priority.
- Begin with de-stigmatising mental health in the workplace
Before any type of plan takes place, an emphasis needs to be put on de-stigmatising mental health in the workplace.
Even if help is available for those who have mental health conditions, they may feel unable or unwilling to access it due to the perceived approach to mental health.
Allowing employees to take mental health days is one way to clearly integrate the normalisation of mental health conditions, whilst also reducing absenteeism and presenteeism.
If an employee knows they can take days off for their mental health, they may be less scared about disclosing their own mental health struggles, particularly if mental health days are discussed in the onboarding process.
Those higher up in an organisation talking about their own mental health challenges can also alleviate concerns about employees being stigmatised if they disclose their own condition.
Alternatively, having mental health awareness training or having mental health champions can also serve the same purpose.
- Consider all available options
There are low-level options such as signposting (yes, the posters on the canteen wall) and ensuring an open-minded approach in the office about mental health, but there are also a range of more intensive approaches as part of a wider initiative.
Bearing in mind that HR professionals, senior leaders, line managers and employees are all responsible, and essential for a mental health plan to work, the intensity may vary business to business.
Work/life balance is a huge factor, so beginning with ensuring working hours, lunch breaks and rest and recuperate are all in line with a mental health strategy is important.
Learning and development options can also provide a sense of fulfilment for employees, so that their work is meaningful, and they know they are fully supported.
Deloitte found that interventions such as 10 email CBT sessions delivered by a therapist had much lower return on investment (ROI) than broader programmes that include screening, personalised feedback and referral to an occupational physician.
The takeaway? Not all interventions are going to suit your business, but the most effective are integrated properly into your company.
(Oh, and there are a lot of tax-free options available, such as Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPS), mental health first aid training and health screening.)
- Maintain, monitor and commit
There’s no use implementing interventions and making organisational changes if you don’t measure how they work.
Offer routine feedback from employees, one-to-ones and include discussions around mental health and wellbeing on your agenda for team meetings.
It will take time to build the trust necessary for mental health interventions to be as effective as possible, but a continued commitment will speak for itself.
The way we understand mental health in society and in the workplace specifically is constantly evolving, which is why it’s essential to continually adapt and adjust.
Mental health isn’t one and done by putting one poster up or acknowledging World Mental Health day.
It requires continuous effort, energy and needs to be maintained in order to be successful.
Being proactive, rather than reactive (after an employee has been in distress) is the key to ensuring you’re not being performative.