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Practical Guide to Reducing Poor Mental Health in the Workplace

Katie de Bertrand

Research show that poor mental health of employees presents a huge challenge to employers in both human and economic terms. It also shows that a robust prevention strategy delivers far better outcomes than any reactive measures and is the best way to build a resilient workforce where mental health receives the same attention and care as physical health.

Katie de Bertrand, Training Manager (Workplace Wellbeing) at Oxfordshire Mind and guest speaker at Allen Associates HR Hub makes the business case for transforming workplace mental health culture and explains how to implement a proactive, preventative approach and the steps employers can take now to make a measurable difference.

The business case for caring for employees’ mental health

Around 1 in 6 working people are experiencing symptoms associated with anxiety, depression or stress at any given time, but there are some groups who are disproportionately exposed to the risk factors for mental health: for sandwich carers, young people and those struggling to pay their energy bills, this number rises to 1 in 4.

The total cost to UK employers is now £53-56 billion annually, 25% up on pre-pandemic costs which reflects that the mental health of the nation has still not recovered to pre-pandemic levels. But mental health related sickness absence accounts for only £6 billion of those costs; mental health related turn-over is a bigger cost at £22.4 billion; but the biggest cost of all at approximately £25 billion is the lost productivity from those who are at work, but not able to perform at their best because of symptoms of poor mental health.

Fortunately there is hope! The majority of these costs are coming from the people who are here at work, they are the ones we can do something for – and it’s worth doing. Return on investment figures support the case for employers to invest in improving the mental health of their employees.

Employers see a return of £5.30 for every £1 invested in measures to improve staff mental wellbeing, and the Deloitte report “Mental Health and Employers: The Case for Investment” breaks this down to tell us which intervention, when and for who, are the most effective. This has shown the value of preventative approaches for the whole workforce, and proactive early support once an issue develops, in comparison to reactive approaches to individuals once their mental health has deteriorated.

How to prevent employees’ mental health from deteriorating at work

To take a preventative approach in your organisation, aim to:

  1. Create the conditions for disclosure through an open mental health culture

We do treat mental health and physical health differently, and that is because of mental-health related stigma causing people so much worry about disclosing that they often stay silent. This means poor mental health in the workplace is going untreated and having  worsening impacts on both the person and their abilities at work.

In Workplace Wellbeing training sessions, I often ask participants: what barriers are there to disclosing in the workplace? They return from their break-out groups with huge lists which encompass not knowing how to raise issues, not knowing what will happen, worries about how they will be perceived and how they will be treated, and even not recognising that they are in poor mental health.

Give clear information on what employees can expect if they disclose a mental health issue, clarify the channels to raise their concerns, and routinely publicise both internal and external support. This can start in induction, so employees know how mental health is managed and supported.

Keep mental health visible to raise awareness, normalise the conversation and break down stigma. Mark the awareness days with events and speakers that break down stereotypes, make use of intranet pages and internal comms, and have mental health champions speaking openly at all levels, including leadership, to show that mental health issues are not a barrier to career development.

  1. Get senior leaders on board

Senior leaders not on board? Influence them with the business case that speaks for itself, so they are aware of the economic argument for employee wellbeing as well as the human or moral argument. They are the ones who can approve policies, sign-off budgets and make sure all stakeholders within your organisation are on-board with the mental health agenda.

Senior leaders on board? Great, a message that comes from the top filters down to the whole organisation, and a clear message that breaks down stigma is that mental health will be treated in the same way as physical health. Leadership can also role-model the values of a healthy organisational culture through healthy working practices such as work-life balance and creating psychological safety by inviting feedback about issues, responding with transparency and authenticity rather than formulaic responses, and admitting their own fallibility.

Bring your senior leaders together to develop an action plan to address mental health challenges in your organisation at Oxfordshire Mind’s Strategy Workshop for Directorate.

  1. Create a healthy working culture

Some workplace cultures make people ill, with 14% of employees self-reporting all of the main signs of burnout, and two-thirds of people with a mental health problem citing workplace stress as either causing or exacerbating it. However, it’s not just mental ill health causing disability in workplace settings; even employees in moderate mental health are not performing at their best. It is when people are in their optimal mental health that they are thriving, flourishing and performing their best at work.

In a healthy culture, staff wellbeing, employee motivation and productivity, and business performance are all interrelated.

They key elements include:

  • Communication: Horizontally for mutual understanding and cooperation, together with top-down communication means neither keeping employees in the dark nor over-burdening them, but rather achieving a comfortable middle ground with need-to-know transparency. Correspondingly, employee involvement especially at times of change, is essential for morale with employee views being sought out, listened to and responded to.

  • Investment: Investing in employees’ skills through learning and development shows them they are valued, and work-life balance is vital for health and therefore performance. This means working reasonable hours, taking full breaks and annual leave, recuperating after busy periods, and flexible working where possible.

  • Environment: Create a mutually supportive environment where good relationships thrive with work streams bringing people from across the organisation together, and opportunities for colleague support, such as mentors and buddies, with a culture of teamwork and collaboration

  • Integrity and leadership: Organisational culture does not change overnight and ultimately culture is created and transmitted through people, especially leaders, living it with integrity. Provide training, communicate your organisation’s values, and consider what you want from leaders in the recruitment process.

Three ways to ensure proactive early support for poor mental health

Whole workforce preventative actions, go hand-in-hand with proactive early support when employees do develop mental health issues, as the support people get from their employers to help them cope and recover is key in determining how well and how quickly they are able to get back to peak performance.

Ways to take a proactive approach in your organisation include:

  1. Train your managers and employees

Managers play a key role as it is their attitudes and day-to-day behaviours that will transmit your organisation’s values on mental health, and if an issue develops they should be the first to know and respond. Managers need to be equipped with the skills and competencies to effectively support their team: to be approachable and confident on mental health, to spot early warning signs including remotely, to initiate a conversation, provide active listening, and support with practical measures to reduce stress to enable the employee to stay in work if possible. However, managers have said to me that employee training in awareness of their mental health and factors affecting it could support the mangers’ role by enabling the employee to be more forthcoming.

  1. Create organisational guidelines for each stage of the process of managing mental health

Managers can also be supported in their roles by a framework on what to do when issues arise. For example, formalising the wellbeing question being asked on supervision or appraisal forms and providing information on what reasonable adjustments could be offered within your setting. This can reduce stress on managers by giving them clarity about their role in employee mental health, and providing consistency for employees to ensure a standard approach rather than a range of support at the discretion of individual managers.

  1. Tackle causes of work-related stress

New data has shown that tokenistic mental health perks which individualise the responsibility for stress management while perpetuating unsustainable levels of work-related stress do not improve employee wellbeing, but systematic changes like tackling the causes of stress do.

HSE take stress seriously, stating that “work-related stress and mental health issues often go together…Whether work is causing the issue or aggravating it, employees have a legal responsibility to help their employees”. This demonstrates a parity of process for mental health and physical health, as we need to risk assess causes of work-related poor mental health and remove or reduce them just as we do for physical health.

To assess the causes of stress, use your data from sickness absence records, exit interviews from mental health related turnover, and make sure you ask about it in staff satisfaction surveys, then show you take employee mental health seriously by tackling those causes and feeding back to employees what you have done.

Remember to celebrate progress

Every organisation is different, so when planning your mental health strategy, ensure that mental health is included in the employee data you capture, and let your people lead you in your next steps. If you have made some fantastic progress, but are still feeling that there is so much more your organisation can do, remember to celebrate how far you have come, and that this is a big undertaking. The development and implementation of a comprehensive mental health strategy is a work in progress for us all.

About the author

Katie de Bertrand was a guest speaker at Allen Associates HR Hub – a monthly series of webinars on the topics that matter most to HR professionals and employers who work in or around Oxfordshire.

Katie has worked for Oxfordshire Mind and Mind in Berkshire for 11 years, and brings the extensive knowledge and experience gained in frontline mental health work and management to her role as the Workplace Wellbeing Training manager.

Katie is responsible for the creation and delivery of our workplace wellbeing training suite including our Tools for Managers training and our directorate level Mental Health Strategy Workshop.

She is a Mental Health First Aid instructor, Suicide First Aid instructor and a qualified counsellor in private practice. Her therapeutically-informed background influences her work with organisations to ensure workplace wellbeing strategy follows best practice, and the values which bind her work together are psychological safety, trust and integrity.

Oxfordshire Mind

Our services are here for all Oxfordshire residents and the front door to accessing us is our Information Service. We would welcome your call during working hours Monday to Friday.

If you think you would benefit from Workplace Wellbeing training and consultancy provided by Katie and her team, please check out our courses and find out what we offer or get in touch with us. The fees we receive for training and consultancy go directly towards funding Oxfordshire Mind’s free services for those who need them.