The Importance of Nurturing Mental Health at Work

Damon Ankers, writing for Healthy Performance, considers why employers should focus on nurturing mental health at work

What is mental health
Mental health is something that we all have and it’s the way we think and feel and our ability to deal with ups and downs. When we have good mental health we have a sense of purpose, motivation and desire to complete tasks and push ourselves to learn or achieve new things. Having good mental health also means that we’re often also more resilient and can deal with stressful situations far more effectively.

If you enjoy good mental health, you can:
● Make the most of your potential
● Cope with what life throws at you
● Play a full part in your relationships, your workplace, and your community

Our mental health doesn’t always stay the same. It can fluctuate as circumstances change and as you move through different stages in our lives. Distress is a word used to describe times when a person isn’t coping – for whatever reason. It could be something at home, the pressure of work, or the start of a mental health problem like depression. When we feel distressed, we need a compassionate, human response. The earlier we are able to recognise when something isn’t quite right, the earlier we can get support.

What are mental health problems?
We all have times when we feel upset, stressed or frightened. Most of the time those feelings pass, but sometimes they develop into a mental health problem such as anxiety or depression, which can impact our daily lives. For some, mental health problems become complex, and require support and treatment for life.

Factors such as poverty, genetics, childhood trauma, discrimination, or ongoing physical illness make it more likely that someone will develop a mental health problem however mental health problems can happen to absolutely anybody. One of the latest large-scale surveys in England found that one in six people experience the symptoms of a mental health problem in any given week.

Different mental health problems affect each individual differently. Diagnosis alone is not a definitive way to understand a person’s experience. For example someone with a diagnosis of schizophrenia may be able to manage their condition well and aren’t severely affected by symptoms, but someone with anxiety may not be able to manage their condition and struggle immensely with social situations inside and outside of work.

What mental health legislation do employers need to know
Whether you are a HR or health and wellbeing professional, a Director or a line manager it’s important that you’re aware of and understand the mental health legislation in the UK workplace.

The 3 key legislations in relation to mental and physical health in the UK
● Health and Safety at Work Act (1974)
● Equality Act (2010)
● Mental Health (Discrimination) Act (2013)

To learn more about these legislations and their relation to mental health and wellbeing here.

Why line managers are key to managing and supporting mental health at work
According to Mental Health at Work, only 10% of UK employees who feel that they are dealing with a mental health issue feel confident in talking about their condition with their manager. Equally as concerning, fewer than 25% of managers have been offered training to spot early warning signs of mental ill health and have supportive conversations.

With 90% of employees suffering in silence and feeling unable to talk to their boss, it’s no surprise that 17.5 million sick days were taken last year by workers who cited mental health as the cause.

The way line managers interact with their staff in and out of work has a profound effect on their mental health. Management behaviour is often cited as the reason behind employees suffering from work-related stress. Managers proficient in softer people management skills such as listening non judgmentally and with empathy empower their staff to take ownership of their mental health, improve their wellbeing and boost their resilience.

Why don’t people talk about mental health?
Although awareness around mental health is growing people still find it hard to talk to people both inside and outside of work about their troubles. We still face a world where people with mental health problems face discrimination, and can face challenges getting the help they need.

Many people who experience distress try to keep their feelings hidden because they are afraid of other people’s responses. Fear of discrimination and feelings of shame are among the top reasons people give for not telling their colleagues about their mental health problems.

When we create workplace cultures where people can be themselves, it is easier for people to speak about mental health concerns without fear, and easier for them to reach out for help when they need it.

Even so, the decision to disclose distress at work is not one people take lightly. It is vital that workplaces become environments where people feel safe to be themselves.

How to spot the warning signs of ill mental health in the workplace
Have you ever stopped to consider why a co-worker might be acting out of character? Perhaps you’ve put it down to them just having a bad day. We all have bad days, but when those bad days start to be the norm the risk of developing mental health issues increases. Would you step in and help a co-worker who is having more bad days than good or would you dismiss their behaviour? Would you reprimand them for acting inappropriately or speak to them first and offer your help and support? It can be very hard to know what to do in these situations but being aware and able to spot the warning signs is a valuable ability to have.

How to support mental health in the workplace

The very best organisations recognise the fundamental importance of supporting the health and wellbeing of their employees. But right now, 1 in 6 employees are dealing with a mental health issue, such as anxiety or depression, which is preventing them from performing at their best. There are many inexpensive adjustments you can implement that will support people to manage their mental health effectively that allow them to thrive.

Recent research demonstrates businesses with high levels of employee engagement have increased productivity, and stronger staff commitment. High employee engagement cannot happen without good mental health. Some evidence shows when employee wellbeing is not supported, engagement reduces, performance levels drop off and staff turnover is increased.

Developing a culture of proactive wellbeing through addressing the causes of mental health problems, will create an environment where staff feel empowered and confident to discuss the ways their mental health can be supported in the workplace.

What rights do employees with mental health conditions have
A recent survey conducted by Mental Health charity MIND found that over 20% of people with mental health issues are unaware their condition could be classed as a disability, and they could be missing out on legal protections or helpful adjustments at work.

Mental health in the workplace is protected by several legal rights. These include the right to freedom of expression, and health and safety legislation which protects us from physical and psychological hazards. Perhaps the most pertinent piece of legislation that relates to a person’s mental health protection in the workplace is The Equality Act (2010).

How to protect employees at work from mental health discrimination
In recent years it could be argued mental health has become slightly less of a taboo topic. Perhaps in part this has been down to many celebrity endorsements showing mental ill health doesn’t discriminate. Additionally, initiatives such as Time to Change, Mental Health First Aid, Every Mind Matters and Mates in Mind have all contributed to breaking the stigma of silence, but more work needs to be done.

In this fast paced constantly switched on world we are forever being challenged and bombarded with requests and responsibilities. Are we asking too much of people? Nobody is superhuman. Whilst we may want all our people to do more with less, put in the extra hours, day after day for the good of the company, many run the risk of developing mental health issues if not supported.

Individuals not seen to be ‘pulling their weight’ can all too often be masking an underlying mental health issue and risk facing discrimination at work.

Successfully managing anxiety and stress in the workplace
A recent Acas poll reported 66% of employees have felt stressed and/or anxious about work in the last 12 months. These findings closely resemble the CIPD and Simplyhealth’s ‘Health and Wellbeing at Work’ report. It found 37% of employers reporting increases in stress-related absence, and approximately 60% reporting increases in diagnosed cases of anxiety and depression.

Living with an anxiety disorder can have a huge effect on your day to day life, particularly at work. People may make excuses to duck out of social situations, be unable to meet deadlines, and maintain positive working relationships. Building personal resilience can help to effectively manage workplace anxiety and the feelings of being constantly stressed. Here are 10 ways to avoid spiraling out of control.

Helping young adults with anxiety
Did you know that 16% of young people aged 16-24 meet the criteria for diagnosis with a common mental health condition such as depression and anxiety?

What’s the best mental health initiative for your workplace?

Whether you are starting out on your journey or have a well-established mental health strategy it is probably a question you’ve asked yourself at some point.

Truth is, there is no one size fits all answer. What you choose to implement should be based on several factors. These factors sould include the demographic of your workforce, industry, and culture. Knowing your people is pivotal to the success of any mental health initiative in the workplace. Research shows there are some evidence-based mental health initiatives that support good mental health and positively impact health in the workplace.

How to create a mental health at work policy

The first step is to establish an effective mental health at work policy.

The creation and application of a workplace mental health policy will benefit the health of employees, boost productivity for the company and enhance the wellbeing of the wider community.

It could be created as part of a wider health and safety strategy or live as a stand-alone policy. Either way, it shouldn’t be created to tick a box. Whatever is detailed within the policy needs to be reflected in daily workplace practices. In short, it needs outline a company’s day to day management of mental health in the workplace.

A mental health at work policy should detail your company’s vision for managing and improving the mental health of its workforce. A well thought out policy will identify and facilitate the agreements needed among the different stakeholders in the workplace, co-ordinate the best approach and deliver meaningful impact.