Supporting mental health in the workplace

21 May 2020

The current lockdown may have shone an even more intense spotlight on this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week. But that shouldn't detract from the fact that mental health has been an issue a long time before Covid-19, and will remain an issue long after the virus has retreated in our rear view mirror. So putting the pandemic to the side for the moment…

It is very common for employee/colleague engagement to be seen through the prism of productivity and profitability - that an engaged workforce is more committed, informed and empowered and that translates into lower rates of absence, reduced staff turnover, higher performance and increased output, all of which positively impact the bottom line.

Now no-one is saying this is a bad thing. Engagement programs obviously have to deliver a hard return on investment just like any business initiative. And the greater the returns, the more leadership will appreciate its value as an organisational discipline - not just an HR ‘thing’. However, there are other, perhaps more subtle, aspects of engagement that should be flagged up.MH blog

One of the areas that we are championing is its role in wellness and mental health. We can tell from meetings with clients and prospects that there is a growing sensitivity around this subject and recognition that while employers are not exactly ‘in loco parentis’ there is a basic duty of care that goes beyond standard health and safety. The main push has to be around creating the right sort of culture and day-to-day environment - a positive one where people can thrive, where they feel valued and supported, where connection and community are the order of the day, not disassociation and disenfranchisement.

That means developing excellent communication, conversation and collaboration; building up social capital; strengthening peer relationships; staying true to open dialogue and feedback; and moving to address flagged issues that are causing negativity, concern or stress. It also involves a good hard look at the practice ethos and managerial style - things that can only be changed at the executive level - although an engagement program can be an excellent platform for a fresh approach should wholesale change need to happen.

Practical steps

That’s the bigger vision, but there are other practical steps you can take too. Around the wellness piece, there are the obvious ones of schemes and perks that promote good health. In respect of mental wellbeing, you can provide access to confidential counselling or support services, allowing staff their anonymity given understandable worries around how mental illness can be perceived by employers.  A simple ‘pastoral’ mentor scheme can work in-house, if people just want someone they can talk to, and similarly private ‘self-help’ groups can be developed to provide peer-based support.

What is essential is that these opportunities are accessible to all, they’re highly visible, actively promoted, and backed by the partnership. And in the same way that an engagement platform can support internal comms, or intranet capability, or task automation or pulse surveys, it can underpin a commitment to wellness and a care for people’s mental well-being. Personal issues are sometimes just that, personal, and nothing to do with how things are at work; but enlightened employers make no distinction. If one of their staff is having problems for whatever reason, that will inevitably have an impact on their role at work; the right thing, for both commercial and ethical reasons, is to open up a route to the help they need.

We need to remember that there are many stressors on today’s workforce, both in and out of the workplace. If you have been thinking about engagement in the ‘P’ terms of productivity, performance and profit, then let’s add another - people.