Tackling the taboo: creating a positive culture around mental health

Writing for SHP, Emma Mamo, Head of Workplace Wellbeing, at mental health charity Mind, looks at the best ways to create a mentally healthy workplace…

We all have mental health, just as we all have physical health. With stress and mental health problems hugely prevalent in workplaces, creating mentally healthy workplaces and dealing with the causes of poor mental health has never been more important. A survey by Mind and YouGov found that over half of workers (56 per cent) rated that their work was very or fairly stressful. In fact, work was the biggest cause of stress in people’s lives, more so than financial problems, health or relationships. So workplace stress is an issue too big to ignore.

Unfortunately, there is still a taboo around talking about mental health, and nowhere is this more apparent than at work. Lots of staff worry about opening up if they are struggling with their mental health, fearing their colleagues and managers will perceive them as less able to cope, or worrying that they could even lose their job as a result. Few employees feel able to talk openly with their line manager about stress, even if it’s so severe that they’ve had to take time off work. Of the workers we polled who had been off work due to stress, just five per cent had told their employer that the problem was stress-related. The remaining 95 per cent having cited another reason for their absence, such as an upset stomach or a headache. That’s why, above all else, employers need to create a culture where staff feel able to talk openly about their wellbeing without being perceived as weak or incapable.

Wellbeing initiatives show staff that their employer is responsible and values their contribution and wellbeing. Putting in place measures to promote wellbeing also makes good business sense – given employers who look after their staff reap rewards such as increased staff morale, productivity and retention; and reduced sickness absence. Three in five people who were polled told us that if their employer took action to support staff mental wellbeing, they would feel more loyal, motivated, committed and be likely to recommend their workplace as a good place to work.

There is also evidence which suggests that people entering the workplace now prioritise workplace wellbeing more than previous generations. A 2014 survey carried out by Deloitte found that Millennials (those born in the 80s and 90s) show different preferences to their predecessors when it comes to workplace culture, wellbeing and self-development, placing greater importance on a healthy work-life balance and a positive workplace culture. As such, they are more likely to turn their back on their employer if these needs are not met. Workplace wellbeing initiatives such as Employee Assistance Programmes and flexible working hours are now common currency, so if your organisation isn’t offering them, there’s a chance you could lose good talent to another organisation which does.

Before implementing any wellbeing measures, HR professionals should conduct an anonymous staff survey to gain insight into the wellbeing and satisfaction of individual members of staff. Surveys ought to be regularly carried out – annually or more frequently if necessary – and will highlight areas where the organisation is doing well and those that can be improved on. They can also show where existing policies and practices are not consistently applied.

Creating mentally healthy workplaces involves promoting wellbeing for staff, tackling work-related mental health problems and supporting staff experiencing mental health problems. There are a number of practical ways employers can improve working conditions, which needn’t be costly. In fact, small, inexpensive measures can make a huge difference. Wellness Action Plans – available free of charge from Mind’s website – can be hugely effective. Jointly drawn up by managers and staff, this tool identifies what helps people stay well at work as well as specific symptoms, triggers and support needs and agreed solutions. These person-centred, tailored plans can be very effective as they recognise the fluctuating nature of mental health problems and the way mental health affects everyone differently. Even more importantly, they enable constructive and supportive conversations about managing mental ill health.

Employers should ensure every member of staff has clearly outlined roles and responsibilities; and that their workload is manageable and targets achievable. Regular communication between managers and line reports is important, particularly for staff working remotely and/or in isolation. Having frequent meetings creates the space for employees to discuss any issues they are facing and develop methods to tackle these problems. Supportive employers promote staff wellbeing and retention. The physical workspace is also hugely important as lighting, temperature and greenery all play a role in how we feel. Looking after the wellbeing of your staff benefits everyone – no matter their role, seniority, and whether they have a mental health problem, or not.

Thankfully, employers are increasingly acknowledging the impact the workplace has on the mental health of their staff. This is in part due to the positive impact of anti-stigma campaigns like Time to Change, run by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness.

We’ve seen over 350 organisations demonstrate their commitment to supporting the wellbeing of their staff by signing the Time to Change organisational pledge. On 2 February, Time to Change held their fourth annual ‘Time to Talk Day’ across workplaces and other communities all over the nation, resulting in thousands of conversations about mental health.

SHP

February 2017

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