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Talking it over

Linda Wheatley, Group Compliance Director at Business Moves Group argues that a culture change is required to improve the mental wellbeing of the workforce

A quick look through the news will tell you that mental health awareness has risen up the agenda in recent years. It’s hardly surprising when you consider some of the facts and figures. Research from Mind, for example, found that under half of employees polled believe their manager would not be able to spot if they were struggling with poor mental health. Moreover, the Health and Safety Executive found that mental health problems account for almost 60 per cent of all workdays lost due to ill health. While the latter statistic demonstrates a clear business case for addressing mental health within the workplace, above everything else there is an ethical imperative to treat colleagues’ health seriously because it’s simply the right thing to do.

Sadly, stigma still persists. There are a number of ways this can manifest but the most common is a misunderstanding of what mental health is and how it affects people from all walks of life. It’s often assumed that poor mental health is the reserve of knowledge workers or senior executives, as these are the people believed to be under the most pressure and therefore at greatest risk. Yet the reality is mental health does not discriminate and it can affect anyone at any time. This not only emphasises how common the struggle is but also the importance of making mental health an everyday conversation in the workplace.

Mental health training should now form part of any forward-thinking business strategy but it’s not a prerequisite for effective change. While courses provide an excellent starting point, there are other simple measures that businesses can put in place to ensure those struggling are properly looked after.

Ending stigma around mental health in the workplace begins with an open dialogue. It’s often said we spend one third of our lives at work, making it vital that issues are raised and dealt with quickly. While this may involve hearing criticism, it’s important to keep in mind that an emotionally unresponsive workplace is not only detrimental to people’s health and happiness but also damaging for output. As the Mental Health Foundation points out, good mental health at work and good management go hand in hand and there is strong evidence that workplaces with high levels of mental wellbeing are more productive. Some estimates place the increase at as much as 12 per cent – a potentially transformative difference.

So, what does an ‘open dialogue’ look like? This depends on the company. Some organisations will do something simple like a coffee morning, others might choose to be more formal by hiring a wellbeing manager. There is no ‘right’ way but it’s important to ensure that whatever is put in place is effective. That means ensuring staff are comfortable with the process and feel able to share, if necessary. BMG, for example, has an ‘open door’ policy, where employees are encouraged to communicate with line managers who have received mental health training. This approach allows staff to share with colleagues they know and trust.

Mental health is unique to each individual. Some will be comfortable opening up and some will not. It’s vital to acknowledge this aspect of mental health, particularly in the workplace where the pressure and fear of discrimination can be more pronounced. Ultimately, respect must be granted to those who would prefer to keep their work and their personal life separate. Forcing the issue will likely result in a negative reaction and only exacerbate matters. What’s important is the offer of unjudgmental support, that’s there any time a colleague might need it.

The work-life balance is hardly a new concept, yet its message has never seemed more important. According to research from the CIPD, presenteeism has more than tripled since 2010, with 86 per cent of respondents saying they had observed staff staying much later than official office hours. The damage that this behaviour has on morale, not to mention quality of work and overall output, is well documented yet the problem persists. Shockingly, the CIPD’s research also found that less than a quarter of organisations are taking steps to stop staff from working overtime, or when ill or on annual leave. This issue requires a cultural accord to see lasting change. If businesses are serious about colleagues’ wellbeing they need to set rules on recommended working practices and enforce them.

Mental health awareness advocates will often say that senior buy-in is the biggest obstacle to securing better workplace wellbeing, yet as psychologists Emma Donaldson-Feilder and Rachel Lewis point out, these leaders are often the key to better workplace wellbeing.

The ‘silent’ nature of mental health can make it difficult for some to accept that it has a significant effect on how businesses function, but the evidence could not be more compelling. To really make a difference in the workplace, business leaders need to be fully on board with a wellbeing strategy and lead by example.

Workplace culture is a difficult thing to define at the best of times, but everyone knows what it is and how it affects staff. To really succeed in creating a working environment that prioritises health, it’s important to first address the aspects that fall short. This might be inflexible office hours, long distance travel or ‘unspoken rules’ that no one has ever thought to challenge. While this ‘back to basics’ approach may result in a few difficult conversations, it’s worth the effort as these changes will ultimately rebuild colleagues’ trust in their employer. Following up these changes with staff is vital as they are the ones who will be able to determine if they actually work or not. Workplace wellbeing isn’t a static concept; it requires constant development to be truly effective.

About Sarah OBeirne

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