Three steps to update your workplace mental health plan

14 October 2019 -

Walking up stepsThere are baseline expectations about how to manage workplace mental health issues. More and more managers and employers are going above and beyond

Ian Wylie

Mental health has become an issue that employers can no longer afford to ignore. It’s the main cause of sickness absence in the UK, with estimates suggesting it costs employers between £33bn and £42bn each year.

Managers play a critical, frontline role in supporting staff with mental health issues and understanding how to prevent and address mental ill-health caused or exacerbated by work. Yet, according to a recent survey, only a fifth of employers have met the first of the “core standards” recommended by a government-commissioned report into improving the mental health of employees.

Those core standards, published in the Thriving at Work report in 2017 were:

  • Produce, implement and communicate a plan around providing support for mental health issues at work
  • Develop mental health awareness among employees
  • Encourage open conversations about mental health and the support available when employees are struggling
  • Provide employees with good working conditions and ensure they have a healthy work-life balance and opportunities for development
  • Promote effective people management through line managers and supervisors;
  • And routinely monitor employee mental health and wellbeing

There are enhanced standards for employers who feel they can do more — from increasing transparency through better reporting to providing in-house mental health support and signposting. The challenge for many employers is knowing where to begin. While some organisations may say they take mental health seriously, managers in those same organisations can still feel out of their comfort zone when dealing with mental health issues with their direct reports, lacking confidence that they will be supported in the decisions they make.

Mental health charity Mind runs a Workplace Wellbeing Index to benchmark of best policy and practice. Its most recent research suggests that more than two-thirds (68%) of employers run awareness-raising events to directly promote mental health and have at least partly implemented mental health champion initiatives. Its survey of employees found that only 42% say they are confident that their manager would be able to spot the signs that someone is struggling with a mental health problem. Even fewer — just 36% — say that managers are confident about how to respond when a staff member discloses that they are experiencing poor mental health. And less than half (42%) say that managers receive specific mental health training to improve their mental health literacy.

Even with the best intentions, lots of employers aren’t quite sure where to get started: so here are three steps to creating a mental health plan that will encourage a greater culture of openness:

Measure

Look for any existing mental health data held by your own organisation, such as sickness days related to mental health issues, and turnover rates. Seek out qualitative data from exit interviews and performance review feedback to see if you can identify any trends. You might also consider a survey where employees can talk anonymously about their mental health experiences and what could be done to improve mental wellbeing in the workplace.

Plan

Set out your objectives, ensuring that they are SMART – specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-specific. Then detail the actions you are going to take to meet these objectives. New policies and initiatives don’t have to be sophisticated to be effective. They could be as simple as ensuring that staff take contracted lunch breaks, establishing mental health or wellbeing peer support groups, or signposting employees to online communities for mental health, such as Mental Health First Aid (MHFA), Elefriends or Big White Wall.

Commit

Ensure responsibility for these new policies is allocated to a member of staff or a small team of ‘champions’, each with specific roles. Then communicate your plans to the whole company, so everyone knows clearly what actions are being taken to address mental health in the workplace.

When overseeing policy changes such as these, it’s important to use empathy in the workplace. Find out how you can create an inclusive working environment for every one of your colleagues.

Image: Jake Hills Unsplash

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