Employee mental health at work is a significant issue that affects a large section of the workforce. Mental health charity Mind found that 1 in 4 people in the UK experiences mental health problems every year. Workplace impact can result in lost productivity, with research by the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) finding that 70 million UK workdays are lost annually due to mental health issues, costing employers £2.4 billion annually.
Mental health and work
The workplace challenges of hefty workloads, long hours and colleague disagreements have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the problem of ‘work-from-home-burnout.’ A recent study revealed that since the start of the pandemic, 69% of workers have experienced this phenomenon, characterised by physical and emotional exhaustion. According to the research, the need to monitor email and software at home and feelings of disconnectedness has led to a surge in mental health concerns reported by employees.
Poor mental health in the workplace can result in additional physical ill-health. Conditions such as stress can lead to heart disease, weakened immune systems and cognitive decline, resulting in employee ill-health and further loss of productivity. Organisations that prioritise mental health at work report overall improvements in the wellbeing and efficacy of employees. MHF estimates that initiating effective mental health policies could save UK businesses £8 billion per year.
Employers’ responsibilities for employee mental health
Promoting good mental health at work is not only good employee management; it’s also a legal requirement. All companies have legal duties towards supporting and protecting employee health and safety, with numerous legislation designed to protect employee health in the workplace. Legislation such as the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 places the responsibility for employee health in the workplace with the employer. Failure to safeguard mental health in the workplace could lead to an employee filing a costly personal negligence claim and an employer facing a fine or imprisonment.
Legal requirements for workplace mental health support
Employers are also required to support mental health illnesses in the context of the Equality Act 2010 which considers any health issue – both physical and mental – that is either long-term or temporary a disability if it has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on an employee’s ability to do normal daily activities. Failure by an organisation to facilitate employees’ mental health needs could be classified as workplace discrimination, leading to financial damages and reputational harm to the organisation and undermine good employee relations practices.
Employers need to tackle practical, actionable steps to create and maintain a stable and supportive work culture, such as through culture, training and risk assessments.
Read on for our nine tips for both promoting and supporting good mental health at work.
9 top tips for excellent workplace mental health and wellbeing
There are many actions employers can take to protect against and alleviate poor mental health in the workplace.
1. Enable better work/life balance for employees
Offering flexible start and finish times allows employees to better organise personal events and responsibilities around their work schedule. Altering routine can also energise employees and make them feel less restricted.
Giving the option to work-from-home also gives employees a greater sense of control over their working hours and can reduce stress in those with lengthy commutes.
Flexible working is legislated for and there are codes that relate employers responsibilities to deal with requests.
2. Adapt your management style
With much of the UK workforce transitioned to agile, hybrid and home-working throughout the pandemic, it is vital that measures are put in place to avoid common issues associated with remote working, such as feelings of isolation and the inability to switch off from work.
Ensure that you check in with employees regularly to create a sense of connectedness. Make taking a lunch break compulsory and encourage regular breaks from the screen. Provide workstations assessment training to monitor if employee equipment, including workstation set-up, is fit for purpose and, if not, provide support devices such as ergonomic wrist rests and laptop stands.
3. Create a calm working environment
Make the workplace environment less harmful by minimising distractions, and reducing noise, smells, fumes and glare. Tackle slamming doors with buffers, relocate office printers away from desks, lower phone ringtones and designate a space for phone calls. Add blinds that can be lowered to reduce glare on screens and monitor and control workplace temperature.
Reducing clutter can minimise stress and boost productivity at work. Having designated break-out and lunch spaces enables employees to switch off from work during their breaks. Offering a meditation room or relaxation space with natural light can pay dividends if you have the space.
4. Prioritise wellness
Wellbeing encompasses mental and physical health, so prioritising wellness is a sure-fire way to improve mental health. Providing healthy snacks, encouraging employees to take breaks from their desks and offering subsidised gym memberships can boost wellbeing. If your budget doesn’t stretch this far, corporate wellness apps can be highly effective and show that your company is invested in employee wellbeing.
Training in understanding and managing mental health workplace issues, such as our IOSH Approved Mental Health and Me course, includes resilience, tips and tools.
5. Manage workloads
Unrealistic deadlines, conflicting projects and long hours can lead to anxiety and employees feeling overwhelmed. Be realistic in your expectations and encourage employees to put their out of office email signatures on outside of work hours.
If these last 18 months have shown us anything, it is the importance of teamwork. Pool resources, help employees identify their strengths and allocate accordingly. If an employee is struggling, consider job sharing.
6. Make your employees feel appreciated
According to a 2020 survey, 43% of UK employees feel undervalued at work. Feeling unappreciated can lead to a lack of motivation, reduced confidence and lessened productivity.
Acknowledging employees’ achievements, noting when a milestone is hit or a deadline is met reinforces job satisfaction. Many workers reported that they worry that they’re not performing well as simple praise is never given. Formal reward and recognition platforms can be implemented, or simple verbal acknowledgements or gestures such as hand-written cards show employees they are valued, which boosts momentum.
7. Create wellness action plans
A wellness action plan (WAP) is a personalised, practical tool that helps employees identify triggers for poor mental health and define what support from management would be beneficial. Encouraging employees to draw up a WAP gives them ownership of the practical steps needed to help them stay well at work. It also opens up a dialogue between employers and employees to help better understand needs and experiences and better support their wellbeing.
8. Develop and implement a mental health policy at work
Outlining your obligations and expectations as an employer gives employees clear guidance on what to do if their mental health suffers. Developing a policy and sharing it with employees – such as within an employee handbook – ensures they feel supported.
Obligatory communication training for all management positions effectively ensures an open discourse in the workplace. It is also good practice to nominate a mental health officer and provide them with training on how to spot issues as they arise or how to resolve conflict. Mentor schemes and counselling services can also factor in successful policies in addition to considering appointing trained stress first aiders.
9. Break the stigma around mental health
Historically, the taboo surrounding psychological wellbeing has meant that people suffer in silence, which invariably worsens their condition.
Talking openly about stress management and self-care in meetings and emails enables employees to be open about their struggles. When employees trust an organisation and can see clear, accessible policies and support in place, they’ll be more willing to seek treatment. By adopting a hands-on approach, employers can support their employers in seeking support early on and avoid their condition deteriorating.