Let's talk about mental health at work

Mental Health Awareness Week is an opportunity to highlight the importance of good mental health at work and creating a more open, supportive culture

Many of us spend most of our waking hours at work, so it’s vital that our workplaces have a safe and supportive culture that treats people as individuals. And yet it is still far easier in most organisations to discuss a physical condition like a broken leg than disclose a mental health condition like depression or anxiety.

Mental Health Awareness Week is, therefore, an important opportunity for everyone at work to think about how they consider mental health in their working environment. Whether you are an employer or an HR professional, ask yourself if your organisation is doing enough to promote good mental well-being, as well as providing the right support pathways for people who are experiencing poor mental health. Is the culture open about mental health issues? Do employees feel they can discuss a personal issue with their line manager?

A mentally healthy culture?

Encouragingly, the CIPD/Simplyhealth Health and Well-being at Work 2018 survey report finds that most organisations are taking some steps to create a mentally healthy working environment. The proportion of employers increasing awareness of mental health issues across the workforce has risen from 31% in 2016 to 51% this year, which will, hopefully, start to create a more open culture around mental health.

Of concern is the increase in the significance of mental ill health as a cause of sickness absence. More respondents this year (55%) report an increase in common mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, among employees in the last 12 months compared with 2016 (41%).

Overall, around half of respondents agree that their organisation encourages openness about mental health, is effective at supporting people with mental ill health and actively promotes good mental well-being. Less than a third, however, agree that senior leaders encourage a focus on mental well-being through their actions and behaviours. Moreover, respondents are more likely to disagree than agree that managers are confident and competent to identify and support those with mental health issues.

Challenging the stigma

It’s clear we have some way to go before the majority of workplaces achieve parity of esteem in the attention that good mental health receives compared with physical health, and the confidence and openness with which this aspect of health is treated. Organisations have a responsibility to manage stress and mental health at work, and the aim should be to consider the health and well-being of the whole person. They should do this by making sure employees are aware of and can access the services and support available to them, and by promoting an open and inclusive culture where employees feel confident about discussing a mental health issue and the challenges they are experiencing.

Proactive steps

We’re also seeing a distinct trend of reactive measures, such as a phased return to work, when it comes to how most organisations support people with mental health issues. These are very important and there will undoubtedly be times when an employee needs to take time off, but we also need to see more preventative steps to promote good mental well-being, where employees experiencing stress or mental ill health can access support before problems escalate.

If there is a supportive dialogue between the employee and their line manager, it should be possible for an organisation to put in place supportive measures, such as adjustments to workload or a small change in working hours at an early stage that could make all the difference in some cases.

Other proactive steps to build a mentally healthy workplace include delivering mental health first aid training, to provide a pool of people trained in understanding mental health who can offer support or signposting. Organisations could also set up a network of mental health or well-being champions to raise awareness of well-being issues and help to effect cultural change throughout the organisation.

Whether your organisation has already taken steps to create a mentally healthy working environment, or you’ve still got some way to go, use Mental Health Awareness Week to raise awareness of the importance of mental health in your organisation and reinforce your commitment to the well-being of your employees. Ask for active sponsorship from senior leaders, and empower everyone to think about ways they can help build an open, inclusive and supportive culture for people at work to thrive in.

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