Many companies show their support for mental health through their inclusion and great open-door policies. But putting these promises into action can be a daunting task, and the fear of getting it wrong often holds organisations back from making tangible changes. The world of work is on a journey, evolving into workplaces where those with mental health issues can thrive.
From encouraging use of existing policies (e.g. flexible working, casual clothes) to introducing wellbeing initiatives – there are changes both big and small that we can all implement to make a difference. While these steps will not ‘solve’ mental illness, they can help us continue to cultivate a culture of openness, honesty and acceptance as we work together to support everyone’s mental health and wellbeing at work.
1. Provide managers with guides and mental health first aid training.
Professional mental health training is invaluable for any manager, and provides fantastic transferrable skills. Courses are available for groups or individuals, from a wide variety of sources. A great supporting tool is an organisational handbook. This could include definitions, resources and your own organisation’s policies and processes. Arming managers with the knowledge they need is the first step to creating change – accredited by the Royal Society for Public Health, Mental Health First Aid England provides licensed mental health first aid training in workplaces.
2. Separate responses for different situations.
While we all know that every person and situation is unique, it can be difficult to put in place strategies to enact this. An employee losing a pet is very different to an employee struggling with financial worries. Someone who is chronically stressed at work requires different support to someone who is chronically depressed. Ensure your support tools and training acknowledge these varied situations and offer tailored solutions. Nothing is worse for an employee who is struggling than feeling as though they’ve been given a cookie-cutter ‘solution’.
3. Change up your ‘let’s talk about it’ processes.
HR teams and managers often struggle with the fact employees won’t be open about mental health issues – while this can be frustrating, consider that they may be fearful for their job, scared of being judged, or simply uncomfortable. Make it known (to employees, not just managers) that there are processes in place if someone is struggling.
Often having these conversations off-site is better, to give the employee space to breathe and feel separate from a work environment. Don’t cram a rushed meeting into their lunch break with an HR Director they’ve never spoken to; this will only worsen their discomfort or exacerbate certain mental illnesses like anxiety. Consider letting a close co-worker take them for coffee and report back to the manager. This kind of casual meeting with someone they’re comfortable with increases the likelihood that they’ll be honest; enabling you to support them best going forward.
4. Normalise mood tracking and sharing among teams.
Why not introduce an organisation-wide app (there are hundreds of free ones available) or computer system that encourages staff to track their moods and enter worries or difficulties. Whether it’s used daily or monthly, it promotes an open communication environment and allows colleagues and managers to be honest about how they’re doing. What’s more, this can help explain contributors and reasons behind absence or low work output, so you can proactively support employees rather than only finding out when it’s too late.
5. Expand your sickness forms and introduce an online absence line.
One big contributor to absenteeism is mental wellbeing – from mental illness to stress, relationship or financial worries. Identifying these issues early on and determining the difference between poor attendance and poor mental health is pivotal in working towards a supportive workplace. But this is only possible if you know who, when and why.
To work towards this, ensure your self-certification forms have an option for mental health. Consider offering an online chat/text or email alternative for employees to report absence. While many organisations use phone-only to ensure sickness calls are genuine, employees struggling with personal issues may feel unable to talk about it over the phone or in person. This internalised shame and bottling issues up only leads to presenteeism, which is just as disruptive as absenteeism. A text version of a sickness hotline allows people to be more honest about why they are off sick; and thus allows you to identify issues early.
6. Create a resources page on your intranet.
Consider adding a new page to your HR portal – include a list of helplines, with a brief description, their number, opening times and website. Include specific hotlines such as LGBTQ+ ones, male-specific ones, domestic violence, financial concerns etc. Avoid putting a catch-all generic link to The Samaritans and calling that it, as it can appear impersonal and unfeeling.
Much of the time people don’t reach out for help because it takes a lot of energy and effort which they simply don’t have – so advertise these internal resources and make people aware they’re available. Yes, it may only be used once or twice, but curating the info would only take a half a day or so, and if it potentially saves even one life, isn’t that worth it?
7. Practice better communication techniques.
Underpinning all of the above is good communication. Starting off mental wellbeing practices begins with equipping managers and HR teams with better communication, and is an accessible first step to revolutionising your support strategy. Whether it’s a friend or colleague who is struggling, whether it’s just a bad day or they’re dealing with mental illness, there are four key elements to factor into conversations:
Validation – When someone is suffering, they often think no one believes them or that they are overreacting. Tell them they are allowed to feel how they feel and that you believe them.
Recognition – Recognise their struggles and accomplishments. Praise them for talking about it, acknowledge that this is a difficult situation. Help them recognise positive things around them.
Active listening – Use verbal and non-verbal cues such as nodding, saying ‘I see’, ‘Mhmm’ etc. to show the person you are listening and truly paying attention.
Acceptance – Realise that your acceptance isn’t agreement – even if you don’t believe or agree with what they say, it is important that you validate that their feelings and show that you believe them. Phrases like ‘I understand’ or ‘Yes, that makes sense’ can help when someone feels isolated and distrusting.
This blog is by no means a prescriptive list of mental wellbeing solutions, but if you take even one of these steps to better support your employees, your business will be supported too. Your support doesn’t have to be costly or revolutionary. Provide mental health guides; encourage training and honest conversations; normalise mood-tracking; reconsider your absence process; share resources…
Wellbeing is not a passing trend, and mental illness is not a fad: supporting mental health is in the interest of everyone. It’s something employers must get on board with – because if you don’t, you can guarantee your competitors will.