What is mental health?
‘Mental health’ refers to the state of someone’s mental and emotional functioning. Mental health is affected by the way in which we feel able to cope with the normal stresses of everyday life. Mental ill-health can range from feeling ‘a bit down’ to illnesses such as anxiety and depression.
Talking about mental health at work
It is unsurprising that staff members who are physically and mentally healthy are generally more productive and engage better in the workplace.
Unfortunately, due to the stigma around mental health, employers often don’t feel comfortable speaking to staff members about their mental health. Similarly, staff members may not feel comfortable speaking to their colleagues or supervisors if they need help because their mental health is poor. In fact, many employees who struggle with mental health are concerned that their employers will see them as less capable, weak, or unreliable. With so much change and uncertainty over the future of work, it’s no surprise that individuals struggle to bring up mental health at work.
Why is good mental health important?
Promoting good mental health should be in everyone’s interest. Not only is it the right thing to do, but recognising, valuing, and protecting mental wellbeing in the workplace makes good business sense.
Key findings from a 2020 report by the Mind and the Mental Health Foundation (MMHF) show that people living with mental health problems contributed an estimated £226 billion to the UK GDP (around 12%) in one year. This shifts the narrative away from poor mental health being purely a burden. People are resilient and multifaceted, and having a mental health condition does not prevent them from significantly contributing to business and society. However, mental health problems do cost the UK economy around £118 billion (around 5% of UK GDP) in lost working days, productivity, and healthcare costs per year. If the burden of mental ill health is reduced, those experiencing poor mental health may be able to contribute even more than they already do.
Understanding and addressing mental health at work is also extremely important for maintaining workplace relationships and productivity. Studies have shown that employees who are struggling with mental health issues are more likely to get into conflicts with colleagues, find it harder to multi-task, find it more difficult to concentrate, or need to take long-term sickness absences.
What steps can employers take to support mental health and promote mental wellbeing?
Poor mental health is common and understanding it can make all the difference to businesses and their ability to support their employees. A key step is to create an encouraging environment where awareness about mental health is increased and staff feel comfortable talking about their own mental health.
While poor mental health can be related to (or caused by) problems inside or outside the workplace, it is crucial that employers take proactive steps toward promoting the mental health and wellbeing of their staff. Some of these steps include:
Understanding the Equality Act 2010
Under the law, someone has a disability if they have a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. Staff members with disabilities are entitled to reasonable adjustments to help them perform their jobs. Reasonable adjustments are changes made by employers to remove barriers to a staff member doing their job. This includes barriers posed due to the effects of a staff member’s mental health condition.
For more information, read Disability and reasonable adjustments.
Raising awareness and increasing understanding about mental health
Employers need to understand what exactly poor mental health is and the risks associated with mental health issues that may affect staff (eg work-related stress). Doing so will help employers plan the best strategies for their workplaces.
Employers should consider educating staff on mental health. Including by:
training managers and management teams on how to deal with mental health issues
appointing mental health first-aiders
ensuring staff are provided with mental health awareness information (eg details of available support)
To ensure staff feel comfortable and able to discuss their concerns, employers should encourage open conversation about mental health. Often those diagnosed with mental health conditions don’t inform their employers and continue to come to work even if they’re unwell and would benefit from time off.
Openly speaking about mental health in the workplace can also help change outdated perceptions and the stigma around mental health.
Adopt wellbeing initiatives
Employers should consider adopting reasonable wellbeing initiatives and informing staff of their possible benefits. Examples of such initiatives include providing:
employee assistance services
workplace sports clubs/classes (eg running clubs or yoga classes)
subsidising gym memberships
Creating tailored policies
While most workplaces will have a written Health and safety policy, employers may consider creating a specific mental health policy too. This is an internal document outlining a business’ approach to mental health. It will often set out how the business:
identifies issues and works with staff to resolve them
supports all staff members faced with mental health issues
maintains a healthy environment that staff members feel comfortable and safe in
Creating a flexible working environment
Employers should consider creating a flexible working environment by, for example:
being flexible about start and end times
adopting hybrid working, where appropriate (eg by making a Hybrid working policy)
Keeping in touch with staff
Employers should make sure managers keep in touch with their teams, especially where hybrid working has been adopted or staff are working remotely. Where full teams are less likely to be at work together on a daily basis, it is important that everyone stays connected to ensure that staff members are supported and feel able to raise any concerns they may have.
Reviewing workloads regularly
Employers should regularly review the work carried out by staff, including their working hours and the volume of work they are undertaking. Doing this can help identify any workers that have too heavy a workload and potentially reduce the risk of burnout and/or work-related stress early on.
The steps outlined above are only some of the ways employers can help promote mental wellbeing. Exactly what is feasible and appropriate will depend on a variety of factors, including the size and industry of the employer. However, employers must remember that they always have to protect the health and safety of their staff, and that this extends to staff mental health.
For more information, read Health and safety, Equal opportunities and discrimination, Disability and reasonable adjustments, Neurodiversity in the workplace, Menopause in the workplace, and Stress at work. Ask a lawyer if you have any questions or concerns about mental health in the workplace.
Help is always available if you are experiencing mental health difficulties. Contact Samaritans’ 24/7 helpline on 116 123.