When we talk about health and safety, do we consider the importance of supporting employees’ mental health in the workplace? As World Mental Health Day comes around, we look at the importance of ensuring good mental health and how employers and health and safety professionals can facilitate it.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that one in four people will be affected by poor mental health at some point in their lifetimes.
Stress, anxiety and depression are the most common problems affecting mental health, with around 1 in 10 people affected at any one time, according to the Mental Health Foundation. Anxiety and depression in particular can be severe and long-lasting and can have a major impact on people’s lives.
Work-related stress, depression or anxiety is a significant issue: the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)’s figures show that work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounts for 40% of work-related ill health and 49% of working days lost in the UK in 2016/17 – that’s around 12.5 million working days.
The construction industry is particularly affected by poor levels of mental health in its workforce: a recent survey carried out by Construction News revealed that 57 per cent of construction workers have experienced mental health issues and, shockingly, that one in four have considered suicide.
Studies show that many still feel that discussing mental health issues at work carries a certain stigma: research conducted by the mental health charity Mind showed that fewer than half of people diagnosed with a mental health condition had spoken to their manager about it. The sometimes devastating impact of mental health issues on people’s lives aside, the knock-on effects of loss of productivity or short or long-term absences can be costly to business.
Traditional approaches to health and safety management have very much focused on the safety element of health and safety, but it’s becomingly increasingly clear that health – and mental health in particular – must play a bigger role in ensuring that workers are protected.
So what can employers do to make sure they’re supporting employees and creating an environment in which employees feel confident to talk about mental health and feel sure that their concerns will be taken seriously?
We’ve gathered together some useful advice produced by mental health charities and support organisations to give some insight into how organisations can help to make sure their employees' wellbeing is well-supported:
- Open up
It’s important to normalise talking about mental health and leadership teams and managers are key to achieving this.
Managers need to take the lead, making themselves open and approachable and building trust with their teams. This could be as simple as regularly ‘checking in’ to see how people are doing and showing a genuine interest in their responses.
Some organisations have introduced ‘mental health first aiders’, who are trained to offer help in a crisis such as a panic attack or suicidal thoughts and feelings.
2. Create a positive culture
A positive culture, where everybody feels valued, supported and that their work is meaningful, helps to build the sort of trust and integrity needed to ensure good, open communication.
Give people opportunities to develop in their roles and progress, by offering coaching, learning and training opportunities.
Initiatives such as peer to peer mentoring and ‘buddy systems’ allow colleagues to support one another outside of the line-management structure, offering alternative and additional support channels.
- Build supportive relationships
Encourage collaboration, sharing and support to help build a team-focused environment in which good working relationships thrive: organising regular events to boost wellbeing, such as lunchtime walking clubs or ‘lunch and earn’ sessions, are a great way of doing this.
It’s important that organisations are seen to be fair and open – have robust policies on bullying and harassment in place and publicise them well.
- Recognise the signs
A good understanding of the ‘warning signs’ of mental health issues can be the difference between helping an employee in their recovery – or risk their condition worsening.
Issues such as uncharacteristic or erratic behaviour, dips in productivity and frequent sickness or unexplained absences can indicate that an employee is struggling with their mental health.
If a warning sign crops up, managers should offer support. However, if somebody isn’t ready to talk about their issues, don’t force them – instead, reassure staff that a sympathetic and understanding environment is available to them.
- Prevention is better than cure
One of the major causes or work-related stress or anxiety is a poor work/life balance, particularly in industries where a culture of long hours or fast turnaround times is the norm, such as transportation or manufacturing. The ‘blurring’ of work and personal life, often caused in part by technology, can add to this.
Organisations can help avoid the issues caused by ‘burnout’ by developing a healthy working culture, in which staff are encouraged to take full lunch breaks, rest after busy periods and avoid working excessive hours. Leaders and managers have a responsibility to lead the way and demonstrate healthy working habits.
In addition, flexible working, where practical, can act as a valuable ‘early intervention’ to manage workers’ stress.
Ensuring good mental health in the workplace is in everybody’s best interests, whether they are employers or employees. When staff feel valued and supported, the quality of their work is higher and productivity levels increase. Taking mental health seriously and investing in workers’ wellbeing offers organisations multiple benefits, by enhancing morale, increasing loyalty and commitment, and ultimately, improving profitability.