Last reviewed 8 May 2017

Most people will be aware of the tremendous efforts now being made to highlight the importance of good mental health and of supporting those struggling with mental ill health. There is much that employers can do in the workplace, says Jon Herbert.

The importance of not only surviving but also thriving is high on the public agenda this year, with Princes Harry and William going very public recently about their personal experiences of mental health trauma.

Workplaces are an important aspect of this side of wellbeing; places where mental health issues can be caused but also addressed positively.

Creating an environment in which employees feel safe and able to discuss troubling problems openly, and in return receive well-informed support, can be a win–win opportunity for businesses.

Productivity gains, reduced absenteeism, better staff retention and a more engaged, motivated and happy workforce benefits everybody. However, employers also have legal obligations to safeguard good mental health.

Improved mental health services are also a modern political issue. At the start of the year, Prime Minister Theresa May committed the Government to an overhaul of UK mental health care, adding that “there’s not enough help to hand”.

Her comments were welcomed by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), which believes that increased employer support for mental health is “a step in the right direction”.

Mental health focus: May and every day

Approximately one in six people in the UK suffer from some form of unpleasant and often debilitating form of anxiety, depression and — in more extreme chronic cases — fears that can prevent them from leaving home and going to work.

Mental Health Awareness Week 2017 is being held across the UK from 8 to 14 May. Businesses are invited to take part in a series of awareness-raising events. The aim is to make changes that benefit everybody for 365 days of the year.

Mental Health Awareness Week began in 2001. This year its approach has changed. Instead of asking why so many people are living with mental health difficulties, the focus is moving to identify why too few are thriving with good mental health.

The emphasis is on differentiating between surviving and thriving, considering what governments can do to support communities under stress, and pinpointing what we as individuals can do to safeguard our mental health and build greater resilience to cope with life’s demands.

The Mental Health Foundations hosts the week and wants to spark a national conversation about moving from surviving to thriving and how to create change.

Mental health circle

Surviving and thriving are seen as opposite points on a circle that feed into each other if allowed to. Many people begin with an episode that that they need to survive but which can pave the way to greater understanding and personal growth, strengthening resilience for future struggles.

While personal circumstance, backgrounds, experiences and resources shape responses, many people are able to make the transition more positively with help from others, including in the working environment.

Mental Health Awareness Week organisers suggest arranging inclusive activities, such as hosting a wellbeing walk with friends, colleagues, work mates or the local community. Many more ideas are on the website. Social media will play a central part in the week with individual stories about personal problems, opportunities and successes posted on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Individual fears

Although it is important, speaking up about personal mental problems that are often related to high levels of occupational stress can be difficult in the workplace: people fear being judged, rejected or thought to be less competent and capable.

In London, the Lord Mayor’s Appeal charity is tackling the problem with its Green Ribbon Campaign designed to encourage a workplace culture of speaking freely and sharing. Companies and mangers are being asked to distribute batches of green ribbons among staff as a visible sign of support to show anyone struggling that they are not alone.

Help for employees

Mental health difficulties range from discomforting and perplexing personal feelings right through to conditions that need formal medical diagnosis or treatment.

In many cases, simple adjustments can often be made in the workplace that are important to the individual concerned. Managed responsibly, with empathy and encouragement, these can be practical and straightforward.

From a regulatory perspective, the Equality Act 2010 sets out an employer’s duty to make reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities, defined as mental or physical impairments with a substantial long-term effect on their normal daily activities. The Equality and Human Rights Commission estimates the average cost of adjustments at just £75.

A culture and environment in which employees feel confident and able to discuss their health and difficulties in an important first step. Advice and guidance from a GP and HR department is advisable. A formal approach to identifying, agreeing and recording adjustments can be important too.

Private and personal

Having an open, honest and practical conversation with a struggling staff member about how they feel and what they need is a positive starting point — with a focus on what the affected employee can do, rather than what they can’t do.

Be flexible, realistic about what you can do and offer as an employer, regularly review the situation and always take informed advice.

Managers should be aware of mental health conditions among staff and take time to communicate mental health policies and support available.

Practical steps

There are many ways in which practical changes can be made. An obvious one is often to adjust working hours or schedules if these help to circumvent a specific problem. Allowing paid or unpaid leave for medical appointments can reduce stress.

A phased return to work, often including temporary part-time hours, can help. Also allowing equal amounts of break time in shorter more frequent chunks is another option. Home working is further alternative.

When it comes to the physical working environment, minimising noises is important to many people. This may be by providing private offices, room dividers or partitions, or as simple as reducing the volume of telephone ring tones. A quiet space for breaks can be valuable for staff members.

Other physical solutions that reduce personal stress can include offering a reserved parking space, providing increased personal space or moving a workstation, eg so that the employee does not have their back to a door.

Other workload support measures can include more frequent supervision, help in prioritising work, managing work flows so that the worker only focuses on one task at a time and job sharing.

Further interventions may involve providing a job coach, buddy or mentor system. One very important step can be to provide adjustments and proper mediation if there are difficulties between colleagues.

Further help

Many detailed online sources of information are available from organisations that include the NHS, Health and Safety Executive, Mental Health Forum, Bipolar UK, Depression Alliance, Royal College of Psychiatrists, Acas (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service), the TUC and government websites.

Many others offer expert advice on the end of a phone.