By Thom Dennis, CEO at Serenity in Leadership
World Mental Health Day (10th of October) is nearly upon us and after unprecedented global change and trauma, where many of us became ill, developed long term chronic symptoms, lost loved ones, lost jobs, weren’t able to socialise, had to home educate our children, developed an increasingly poor work/ life balance, weren’t able to go on holiday, were furloughed, were pinged and isolated, mental health has never been more important. Today many employees are still facing worries about redundancy, face a lack of opportunities or suffer from bullying, harassment, or workplace stress.
Whilst the stigma of mental health is slightly improved from a decade ago, and the Olympics may have been a watershed moment for mental health in sport, mental health is the number one reason cited for sick days in the UK and is on the rise. Before the pandemic even took its stranglehold in the UK, it was estimated by Deloitte in January 2020 that mental health issues cost UK employers up to £45 billion a year. Today the additional cost of the pandemic on mental health is not yet fully known or quantified but 18-24 year olds, the unemployed, single parents and those with long-term disability or pre-existing mental health problems are more likely to be suffering from new mental health issues.
Recent months have also seen a spike in workplace burnout, with research suggesting that symptoms of burnout increased by 24% in UK employees in 2020. Many employees are suffering from lack of sleep and then chronic daytime fatigue, feel depleted, irritable, resentful, anxious or depressed, have trouble focusing, and have blurred lines between work and home life. Health is not just physical. Mental health affects every aspect of someone’s life, including their work, and if that isn’t enough to make us do something, the hidden costs of an unhealthy working environment come to enormous sums that no business can afford to ignore.
Every business can support struggling employees, and better still, can proactively ensure that being at work is not part of the problem, particularly as things are still likely to be more difficult than usual this winter in the health arena. Here’s what you can do.
- Employee experience is at the core of good business. Steve Whitton, the Founder of the Global Movement for Mental Health in the Automotive Industry, says we shouldn’t just be talking about customer experience because employee experience is equally important. Leaders should ensure the working infrastructure, ethos and culture of the business focuses on looking after their people.
- Take the temperature of what is going on in the business by finding out how your people are. If you are a manager, your job is your team and looking after them first and foremost will drive creativity, profit, performance and productivity. Regularly check in with staff to see how things can be done better to support them, make sure workloads are balanced and encourage collaboration on projects and mentoring.
- Prioritise wellbeing – Younger people coming into the workforce are vocal about wanting to know how their new employers intend to look after their wellbeing and mental health, but this is now no longer unique to the younger age groups. Covid 19 has taught all generations that good mental health needs to be prioritised in the workplace.
- Understand a problem solving mindset doesn’t always work. Not everything can be fixed, sometimes we just need to be supported. Discuss mental health openly and encourage your team to check in on each other too.
- Don’t just recruit a version of you. Actively choose diverse candidates to improve the atmosphere and culture of a business, in addition to all the commercial reasons it’s good to have a team rich in different experience, skills and knowledge.
- Create a culture that supports mental health. Most employees still feel they are unable to address their mental health issues with management and that it will count against them. We need to move away from a culture that says if you are overwhelmed or have too much on your plate it is a sign of weakness. An open workplace culture that approaches mental health openly and without judgement encourages their staff to be honest about their situation.
- Then implement a clear mental health policy and invest in a mental health programme. This should include a definition of mental health, the signs to spot someone struggling, and clear strategies in place to support employees experiencing problems. Wellbeing programmes are recognised tools to manage mental health in the workplace including offering professional advice on mental health related topics and pressures such as family or health problems, bereavement and debt.
- Educate staff on spotting the signs early to help prevent an employee’s mental health from spiralling. Offer mental health support to an employee if you notice changes in their behaviour, such as if they appear overly tired, anxious and withdrawn, or there is a decrease in their motivation, focus, creativity or productivity.
- Don’t burnout your employees. Promote a healthy workplace environment that empowers staff and allows employees to thrive. Don’t ask your employees to burn the candles at both ends. Respect their weekends and their time once they have finished work for the day. Allow them to subsequently take time off if they have had to work longer hours for an acute pressured period. Encourage them to take their holidays.
- Ensure confidentiality. Employees need to feel reassured that their personal information will not be shared with anyone they don’t want it to be.
- Don’t depend on low statistics to prove that bullying and harassment doesn’t exist in your organisation. Even with strong protocols in place, many bullied and harassed employees will not report it. Actively protect against bullying and harassment in order to improve mental health on an individual and systemic basis.
- Be emotionally intelligent and remove the mental health stigma. Only 13% of employees feel comfortable discussing issues related to their mental health in the workplace. Set an example by speaking up about what you struggle with to be a real mental health influencer. Encourage all genders to talk openly to break down any stereotypes.
- Give your employees more say in where they work. Allow employees to have a say in how often they come into the office versus working from home. For some, working from home is hugely beneficial in avoiding commutes, or having better flexibility with childcare. Others may prefer to work in the office as it helps them have a separate work identity and a change of scene.
- Allow flexible working hours so staff can start earlier or finish later in order to support their mental health. Mental health issues are often accompanied with insomnia which means those suffering with their mental health often struggle with early starts. Equally, giving employees more time in the mornings to deal with other demands like getting the kids ready for school can relieve pressure and stress.