Reality needs to reflect rhetoric from employers on mental health

Tom Hore
Director - Mind (Bristol) | Mind
5th February 2019

The last few years have seen a succession of reports detailing the cost to employers of poor mental health at work. Whether these costs relate to absenteeism, presenteeism or staff turnover, it is estimated to cost UK businesses around £35 billion per year. This economic realisation has led many organisations to begin to take a more serious approach to the matter, being prepared to commit resources, but often wondering where they should start.

It’s a cliché but ‘we all have mental health’; at any one time we’re all somewhere on the continuum between good and poor mental health. Many factors influence where we are on that continuum including our life histories; our susceptibility to mental health problems; our financial position; the current state of our relationships; factors effecting family and friends; and employment. It is this last aspect; employment, that this piece is focussed on.  

Work plays a very central role in the lives of most adults between the ages of 18-66. Work is one of the key ways in which we describe ourselves, and one of the first questions someone may be likely to ask us: ‘so what do you do?’. The lack of employment can lead to poor mental health, and similarly poor mental health can lead to unemployment.  

While employers may be unable to influence many of the external factors impacting upon their staff member’s mental health, they do have the power to influence what happens in the workplace. If the workplace and conditions of employment exacerbate someone’s poor mental health it is likely to increase the cost of this to the organisation. If, by contrast, it contributes positively to someone’s wellbeing, it will reduce costs related to absenteeism, presenteeism and high staff turnover.

Workplace wellbeing is a term bandied around at the moment that means different things to different people. What are the key contributors to wellbeing at work? Is it smoothies in the fridge, fruit in the staffroom, pets at work and lunchtime yoga? Is it comfortable seating, plenty of natural light and proper lunchbreaks? Or is it a decent wage, reasonable workloads, a sense of control over your work and job security?

While all of the above may contribute towards a greater sense of wellbeing at work, some might be seen as fundamental while others are the cherry on the top of the cake. A mid-morning smoothie is unlikely to compensate for a sense of job insecurity, just as the insistence on staff taking proper lunchbreaks will ring hollow if they feel they have insufficient time for their workload.

There are no shortcuts to creating a workplace culture that values the wellbeing of all staff. Due to the stigma and discrimination around mental health, and concerns that staff may have for their employment, the opening of a dialogue about mental health at work often needs to start at a senior level in an organisation.  

Whether this means running mental health awareness courses, creating a mental health at work strategy or organising the display of visual cues such as posters and leaflets, these actions can open the space for discussion of a long term approach. Whatever organisations choose to do about this, the most successful invariably start by involving staff: asking them what they think; what they feel and; what they want.  

For organisational wellbeing strategies to be effective, staff need to feel that there is a sincerity and commitment to the process. Signing up to the Time to Change pledge, or the Workplace Wellbeing Index are significant actions that can be interpreted by staff as a strong statement of intent. However, such actions need to be accompanied by a clear sense among staff that the reality matches the rhetoric. 

One example comes to mind; from a commercial organisation where senior management are rightly proud of the committed approach they have taken to mental health at work and the promotion of staff wellbeing.  However one junior member of staff told me that their line manager had recently suggested that ‘they had taken too much time off for anxiety and that this could affect their future at the company’, while I sincerely believe that senior management would be horrified at this apparent attitude, clearly their message hasn’t reached everyone.  

Matching reality to rhetoric can take time and it’s not always easy to achieve the concrete examples that provide the proof to everyone of good intent. A potential concrete example of good intent is the introduction of an EAP or Employee Assistance Programme to give it its full title. EAP’s have become very popular among organisations as an easy way to give staff access to someone independent to talk to when things are going wrong in their lives; in wellbeing at work terms, it’s a cheap and an easy win. Potentially it’s an enormous boon to employees to have 24/7 access to such a service free of charge.  Unfortunately statistics suggest that only 2-4% of staff members ever make use of the service due to various factors, the most significant of which appears to be the lack of trust that information discussed with the EAP won’t get back to your organisation. Organisations with higher rates of EAP use among their staff tend to have greater levels of overall staff trust in the organisation. The uptake of an EAP may effectively act as a barometer for staff faith in a company’s commitment to wellbeing.  

Organisations with successful EAP’s in place do illustrate the potential enhancements they offer in terms of workplace wellbeing, but these need to be clearly explained and understood by staff for them to be really effective. Bringing in someone from the EAP to explain it properly and its confidential aspect, promoting it properly among staff, showcasing the broader ways it can help staff will all reinforce the sense among staff that there is a sincere and honest intent behind it.  

In any organisation, workplace wellbeing can never have a box to tick to say ‘finished’ or ‘job done’, it will and should always be a work in progress.

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