Last reviewed 5 October 2023
Mental health is a serious issue and it’s one that is more and more being given the attention it needs in the workplace. But there is still more that can be done and there is no better opportunity to put the spotlight on this than 10 October 2023, otherwise known as “World Mental Health Day”. This year, the World Foundation of Mental Health has set the theme that “Mental health is a universal human right”. So, what can employers be doing to make sure this is the case in their workplace?
What do we mean by mental health?
Acas classifies mental health as “the mental and emotional state in which we feel able to cope with the normal stresses of everyday life”. It goes on to say that when an employee is feeling positive about themselves, they are able to work more productively, interact better with colleagues and make valuable contributions to a team or workplace. As such, mental health is very much a general workplace issue. Nearly all employees will see some kind of benefit from focused support on it.
Then there are the many different variations of mental health conditions that individuals can experience. They range from conditions such as stress, anxiety and depression to rarer diagnoses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Some individuals may experience certain mental health conditions from birth, whereas others will develop over time or following an incident in a person’s life.
A period of poor mental health can make it more difficult for an employee to think, feel and respond to situations; ultimately affecting their general performance within their day-to-day role. With many conditions there are likely to be periods where a person is not suffering from poor mental health and times when their mental health affects their ability to carry out normal activities.
It is therefore essential that employers are able to fully respond to this issue in a positive and supportive manner.
The benefits of managing mental health
By taking positive steps to support individuals suffering from poor mental health, through actions such as implementing and maintaining a strong and clear mental health policy, employers can experience real benefits within their organisation. These include:
retaining valuable staff
reducing sickness absence
assisting staff members in reaching their full potential and thus increasing productivity
enhancing health and safety within the workplace
encouraging a healthier and more tolerant workplace
demonstrating the culture of the organisation.
Developing a mental health policy
To show its commitment towards assisting employees, and job applicants, who are suffering from poor mental health, an organisation can introduce a mental health policy.
This policy can set out the legal obligations of the organisation and outline what actions it will take to ensure a safe and non-discriminatory environment for employees, job applicants and third parties, such as contractors. Additionally, the policy can outline how the organisation will respond to any issues caused by poor mental health, whilst raising awareness of what support is available for individuals.
Areas that can be included within the mental health policy include the following (this is a non-exhaustive list).
Adjustments during the recruitment and selection processes for those with poor mental health.
Examples of indicators of poor mental health.
How the organisation will support action planning.
Reviewing workplace adjustments.
How absences caused by poor mental health will be managed.
Supporting returns to work for those absent through mental ill health.
Confidentiality and disclosure to third parties.
Additional support such as employee assistance programmes.
The mental health policy needs to be accessible by all members of staff, through inclusion in the employee handbook or on the company intranet with all other internal workplace policies. New starters should be encouraged to read the policy as part of the induction process and asked to sign a form saying they have read and understood the contents of the policy.
Increasing mental health awareness
To help promote an equal and accepting workplace culture, organisations can take steps to raise awareness of mental health within the workplace. This will help support those who suffer poor mental health by increasing understanding of mental health conditions and their symptoms, whilst also counteracting any negative stigma that may be associated with mental health. As well as helping improve employee relations, increasing awareness will help to discourage any issues of bullying or harassment.
The overall aim of any awareness initiatives should be to encourage the workforce to be more tolerant of mental health and more understanding of the stresses and strains that their colleagues can be subjected to.
Methods organisations can use to raise awareness include the following.
Hold awareness days to explore the issue in further detail.
Encourage participation in national and global awareness events such as World Mental Health Day.
Implement an employee assistance programme that can help identify and resolve employee concerns in areas that affect their mental health.
Identify and train “mental health” champions in the workplace to plan events around the area and to create a mental health contact for colleagues.
Carry out mental health training for employees and managers (see Providing mental health training below).
Providing mental health training
As well as raising awareness of mental health, organisations can carry out specific mental health training to help the workforce become more informed about this area and to highlight what support is available if an individual, or team member, experiences mental ill health.
Training managers on how to spot mental ill health and manage an employee undergoing this can be invaluable; providing them with the tools and confidence to approach this sensitive area and helping them support their team in the best way possible.
Areas which can be included in staff training include:
what they can do to improve and maintain positive mental health such as out-of-work activities and socials
standards of behaviour expected for all staff
spotting the signs of poor mental health
understanding the triggers of poor mental health
internal processes and support
the services available for further advice and support.
This training can be conducted by senior managers, HR professionals or external trainers.
Promoting positive mental health
Organisations which take steps to promote positive mental health will experience benefits such as a stronger and healthier workforce, improved attendance records and higher levels of engagement. It will also encourage those who are suffering from poor mental health to speak to their line managers as they are aware of the positive perception of mental health in the organisation.
The first step to aid positive mental health is to encourage understanding of this. It is important to remind staff that poor mental health is not a sign of weakness and should not be approached as such. Instead, awareness can be raised as to how poor mental health can be caused by serious conditions and is something that one in four individuals will experience at some point in their lives. Staff who feel understood by their managers and colleagues are more likely to stay in work or return after a period of absence, which can help to reduce long-term absences caused by mental health.
Organisations can aim to publicise their commitment to promoting positive mental health. This can be done through clear policies, granting access to employee assistance programmes and ensuring continued awareness. Furthermore, it can be considered whether an action plan for promoting positive mental health can be introduced. This plan can include:
identifying why the organisation is committed to promoting positive mental health
the objectives of the organisation in having this plan
organising a range of activities to educate both staff and managers
putting support processes in place such as introducing mental health champions or first aiders that can be approached.
Steps should also be taken to identify what areas of the workplace may be causing mental ill health. Gathering information on staff turnover, sickness absence and performance can be a good starting point. Employees should be kept involved in these processes because they are the key individuals who are aware of what the organisation does well and what needs to improve. In larger organisations, this could be done through team meetings or employee surveys. In smaller companies, the employer could implement one-to-one meetings.
Supporting mental health in the workplace is an important task for employers and one which will bring many tangible benefits to the organisation, making it a worthwhile investment of time and money. Employers should therefore think carefully about what measures they already have in their workplace to support mental health and what more they can add to these.