WorkLife

Our thoughts on the world of employment law - and beyond.

Mental Health in the Workplace – How employers can help

Since Anna’s last article on this issue mental health has received a lot of attention.

In addition to high profile incidents such as the German Wings crash and the suicide of Robin Williams, there has been a steadily increasing focus on mental health amongst politicians, the media and high profile organisations. Although this increasing focus and sophistication is good news, mental health remains an incredibly complicated and delicate issue for employers which, if handled incorrectly, can damage both the individual and the organisation concerned.

There are two principal areas which employers should focus on here – the first is prevention, ie helping employees to manage and look after their mental health, and the second is dealing with mental health issues when they arise.

This post looks at the first area and sets out a few ways in which employers can help to ensure that their employees are happy and fulfilled. By its very nature this post will therefore be light on the law (broadly speaking, employers’ legal obligations here are simply to ensure the health and safety of employees).  

First off, why should you care? Leaving aside the general moral imperative, the answer to this is easy: an organisation which takes good care of its workforce will find it much easier to recruit and retain top talent.

So, how is this achieved? How does an organisation ensure that its employees are happy and fulfilled?

A quick google search will bring up a whole host of guides for employers on how to support staff with a mental health condition. These vary in quality but generally speaking they contain useful and user-friendly advice.

Unum, a financial protection provider, has recently put together a very useful guide entitled “creating companies that care”. This guide contains a number of useful tips, including:

  • Employers should focus on a small number of business areas including (1) Leadership and line management; (2) culture; (3) working practices; and (4) benefits. This is a good starting point for any organisation.

Culture is fundamental and in order to create a caring culture an employer should think about the following:

  • Conduct an honest review of your culture. Measure your employees’ wellbeing and find out how much they trust you. Take this as your starting point.
  • Value and foster the personal development of your employees at all levels. This can involve giving authority to junior employees so that they feel empowered and engaged and providing a culture of continuous learning and development.   
  • Ensure that your working practices and benefits strike the right balance. Considering flexible working requests is part of this.   
  • Educate and train your employees at all levels, both to maintain a healthy lifestyle and to handle mental health issues in the right way. This can help to remove the stigma around the issue within your organisation.   
  • Studies have shown that communication is key to tackling stress and that mental health issues can be effectively managed and reduced if employees feel able to speak to their line managers. Ensure that your managers are the right people for the job and that they are trained in mental health issues.

Ultimately it comes down to ensuring that your employees feel looked after, valued and fulfilled. None of this is particularly novel or surprising but it is still hard to get right.

A number of organisations provide specialist courses and training on promoting mental wellbeing in the workplace. Mind, for example, is an excellent charity which has a whole team dedicated to this area and their website is very good - http://www.mind.org.uk/workplace/mental-health-at-work/

It is also helpful to look at ways in which other employers have dealt with this issue – employers are in fact becoming much more sophisticated and savvy and many employers have launched ambitious and effective wellbeing programs within their organisations. The law firms Sackers and Weightmans and the healthcare company Roche are three good examples of these.  Wellbeing programs can range from free daily fruit to sophisticated counselling, from in-house Pilates classes to confidential hotlines, and from massage therapists and mindfulness sessions to regular reviews and catch ups between employees and their line managers.

The next post in this series will focus on the ways in which employers should deal with mental health issues once they arise.

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