For employees to be productive and motivated, their health and wellbeing is critical. Because when they aren’t feeling their best, they can’t work at their best. But, perhaps more importantly than that, we also need to realise that our people are human and mental health isn’t just a switch that they can turn off and on during working hours…
In the UK, employers have a duty of care to employees¹. This means that they must do everything they reasonably can to support the health, safety and wellbeing of their people. This includes making sure the work environment is safe, protecting staff from discrimination and carrying out risk assessments.
Beyond that legal obligation, there’s also sound evidence to back up the fact that supporting the mental health and wellbeing of employees results in higher productivity and greater employee engagement and retention².
While this sounds quite straightforward, it’s actually more complex than it seems. That’s because creating a workplace that prioritises mental wellbeing requires buy-in from everyone. Crucially, leadership teams must understand the importance behind supporting the mental health and wellbeing of their staff and be active participants in the culture that backs it up.
In short, prioritising mental health and wellbeing needs to be a day-to-day focus for everyone — particularly leaders looking to get the most out of the people who are vital to the success of their organisation.
Staying Focused on Mental Health in the Workplace
Whether you’re in charge of staff wellbeing, HR, or people and culture, it’s likely that you’ve found yourself here because you’re feeling a little bit at sea trying to work out how to develop and implement a mental health and wellbeing strategy.
After all, the landscape of mental health and wellbeing is so complex, knowing how best to support people when they are feeling vulnerable might seem like a bit of a minefield.
That being said, there are best practices any organisation can utilise to offer the best support possible for employees. In this guide, we’re going to take a deep dive into mental health and wellbeing at work, and look at steps you can take to develop and implement a mental health strategy for your workplace.
What Is Mental Health & Wellbeing?
Before we get into your mental health and wellbeing strategy, let’s look at the core concept in more depth. It’s probably safe to say that mental health is an abstract concept. What’s more, many of us have preconceived notions and biases that influence the way we think about it, which can be problematic.
Emotional, psychological and social wellbeing all sit under the umbrella of mental health. It’s present throughout our life and directly affects how we think, feel and act. In particular, it can influence how we handle stress, make choices and interact with others. So, pretty much every corner of our lives then!
It’s not uncommon for individuals to think of mental health and mental illness as the same thing — but this isn’t true. Mental health is a spectrum. And where we are on that spectrum at any given time depends on our own personal circumstances and stressors.
At one end of the spectrum, a person feels mentally well, positive and resilient. While at the other end, a person is likely to be experiencing severe symptoms and may be at risk of self-harm or suicide.
What Influences Our Mental Health?
Now we know that mental health is a spectrum, what is it that can push us from one end to another?
These influences are known as risk factors and protective factors.
Risk factors could potentially result in a period of poor mental health³. These include:
- Abuse, trauma or neglect
- Social isolation or loneliness
- Discrimination or stigma
- Poverty, debt or social disadvantage
- The loss of a loved one
- Physical health conditions
- Homelessness or poor housing
- Being a long-term carer
- Drug and alcohol problems
- Bullying or domestic violence
Protective factors are the things that help us stay well, or recover from a period of poor mental health. These include:
- Physical activity
- Skill development
- Emotional support
- Social activities
- Adequate sleep
- Proper nutrition
Risk and protective factors relating to mental health exist both within the workplace and beyond it. It’s an employer’s job to mitigate risk factors as far as is reasonably possible, and identify protective factors in conjunction with employees in order to promote good mental health and wellbeing.
According to the mental health charity Mind, 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year in England ⁴. And these figures are rising. With this in mind, it is not enough to just be ‘mental health aware’ on national days or in response to a crisis.
Instead, workplaces should be positive and supportive every single day in order to support the mental health and wellbeing of their employees.
What Is A Mentally Healthy Workplace?
Now we know what sort of factors impact a person’s mental health (positively or negatively), let’s look at what a mentally healthy workplace actually looks like.
Actively Promotes Wellbeing
On national days like Mental Health Awareness Week and World Mental Health Day, workplaces around the globe step up their conversations on the subject in a number of ways. While this is a great start, there’s a pressing need to go a step further and ensure that mental health and wellbeing remains a talking point all year around.
Mentally healthy workplaces actively promote wellbeing in a number of ways, including:
- Listening to employees
- Promoting discussion of mental health and wellbeing
- Encouraging a good work-life balance
- Supporting flexible working practices (including hybrid working)
- Promoting positive working relationships
In doing this, organisations send a message to their employees that they care about mental health and are there to support those who need it.
Understands The Cause Of Mental Ill Health – And Takes Steps To Tackle Them In The Workplace
We spend a large portion of our life at work or working. It stands to reason that something we spend around 8 hours per day on – sometimes longer – will impact our mental health at some point.
A mentally healthy workplace understands that feeling overwhelmed, out of control, underappreciated and burnt out can contribute to mental ill health, and so take steps to prevent this. Factors that contribute to this can include:
- Working long hours with little to no breaks
- Working to unrealistic expectations or deadlines
- High-pressure environments (with little support)
- Poor working conditions
- Unmanageable workloads
- Poor communication with colleagues and/or managers
- Lack of managerial support
- Job insecurity
- Working alone
Conversely, feeling valued, in control, and well-supported will have the opposite effect.
Therefore, mentally healthy workplaces take steps to:
- Operate transparently and offer clarity to employees
- Recognise the achievements, contribution and efforts of employees regularly
- Personalise the employee experience and vital touchpoints in order to treat employees as individuals
- Ensure that individuals have all the tools and information they need to work efficiently and effectively
- Demonstrate a zero-tolerance approach to discrimination
Supports Staff With Their Mental Health
Mental health problems aren’t uncommon. While an employer has the power to mitigate risks from inside their organisation, there is no guarantee that every employee will stay mentally well throughout their tenure.
Mentally healthy workplaces understand that honest, open and regular communication is key to supporting an individual through mental health problems. It is the cornerstone of a great company culture and very much the ‘practice what you preach’ part of the workplace mental health strategy, where an employee experiences whether or not their employer lives and breathes their values.
Workplaces that are mentally healthy usually have a very clear action plan in place for supporting individuals experiencing mental health problems, including personal action plans and clear policies relating to workplace adjustments and phased returns to work. They usually also offer support packages, such as Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) or work in conjunction with occupational health to support individuals psychologically.
What Is A Workplace Mental Health Strategy?
A workplace mental health strategy is a plan that aims to create mentally healthy workplaces. Within this plan are a number of policies and practices that are designed to promote wellness in the workplace and positively influence workplace culture and the overall employee experience.
A workplace mental health strategy should focus on 3 main strands.
This means putting the infrastructure in place to reasonably protect employees from risk factors at work that might harm their mental health and wellbeing.
Potential causes of mental health problems at work include:
- Increased or unmanageable workloads
- Discrimination or bullying
- Poor communication
- Lack of support
- Inflexible working hours
- Unclear objectives
A workplace mental health strategy takes steps to reduce work-related risk factors in order to protect employees from mental ill health in the future.
Promotion means making your whole organisation aware of the support in place with regards to mental health and ensuring an organisation-wide buy-in from top to bottom.
When employees can see that their employer lives and breathes their values in regards to mental health, they feel more supported and empowered to come forwards and share how they are feeling before their issue becomes a bigger problem. They also know from the outset how and where they can access support and mental health, and who they can trust to share their anxieties with, whether that’s enabled through technology or trained individuals who are available at the point of need.
Support is what is afforded to those individuals who are experiencing a period of mental ill health. This might relate to the level of communication agreed on during a period of absence, the specialist support in place and organised by an employer, or details of phased returns to work.
Personalisation is key to good support. Every single employee is different and therefore will need different support in times of struggle. What’s vital is that organisations have the resources, training, and knowledge in place to provide an empathetic and comprehensive roster of support that’s focused on helping individuals recover.
4 Steps To Developing A Workplace Mental Health Strategy
As you can see, there’s a lot to cover when it comes to developing a mental health in the workplace. That being said, we’ve done the bulk of the legwork for you to distil everything into 4 key steps, so you can save some time and jump in to getting started.
Step 1: Get Buy-In From The Top
In a perfect world, everyone would buy into the notion of a workplace mental health strategy on ethical and moral grounds. However, this is sadly not always the case. For this reason, building a sound business case for your strategy based on a number of factors is key.
The aim of your business case is to outline why it’s important to develop a mental health and wellbeing strategy. In this you might consider:
- Cost savings
- Productivity and efficiency gains
- Improved customer and client experiences
- Talent acquisition and retention
Step 2: Identify The Needs Of Your Workplace
Before you change anything, it’s important to know where your organisation is right now. Consider how mental health and wellbeing is talked about in your workplace, what processes are currently in place, and how employees feel about it.
There are more than a few nuances to this. So dig deep. For example, different managers may have different approaches to how they support employees with their mental health. It’s important to look at all the versions of this that exist across the business and listen to the viewpoints of lots of different people. This will help to ensure that no one gets left behind.
As well as this, if you have access to data from employee engagement platforms or any other medium, draw on that too. Be sure to look at:
- Absenteeism rates
- Bullying claims
- Accidents and injury rates
- Peer support program se
- Turnover rates
- Exit interview data
- Employee performance reviews
- Staff surveys
To make sure you get the whole picture, actively seek out feedback from those on the ground too. In order to ensure your future mental health strategy goes the distance, you need to have a full picture of what your staff needs are, what’s working for them currently and what isn’t.
Step 3: Make A Plan
When you understand where your organisation is at right now in terms of mental health, it’s time to work on an action plan.
From the information you gleaned in step 2, it should be easy to make a list of priorities ranging from high to low which you can address in your plan. These priorities can then be converted into core goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely. Crucially, all of these goals should feed into your vision for a mentally healthy workplace.
With the goals in place, you can then create a list of actions for each. Be sure to highlight who is responsible for the actions, along with key considerations for each of those actions.
Step 4: Monitor Engagement & Success
When your action plan is in place, don’t just forget all about it and move on to the next thing. To ensure the strategy is fulfilling its overarching mission, it’s necessary to constantly monitor the plan and ensure it is being implemented in the right areas.
You should also seek feedback from employees once again to measure the effectiveness of your strategy. From conversations with those on the ground, you will get a better idea of uptake and implementation, allowing you to tweak or refine the strategy as and when it is needed.
To measure the effectiveness of your strategy, look at the data you have and measure it against the data you collected in step 3. Are things getting better? If so, how can you build on that? If not, why? And is there another approach you could take?
As with any new initiative, it’s unlikely that the first iteration of your mental health and wellbeing strategy will hit the mark straight away. But that is no reason to be discouraged. The fact that you care about supporting the mental health of employees and want to take proactive steps to support them is a great starting point. And once you have a strategy in place, the only way is up!
Common challenges you might encounter through this process include:
- Resistance to change
- Pushback due to financial costs
- Stigma and discriminatory beliefs
- Low engagement
Encountering these challenges will help your strategy to evolve as you uncover new ways to educate stakeholders on the issue of mental health, break down common misconceptions and stigma related to mental ill health, and communicate the importance of mental health on both a personal and organisational level.
Here are a few tips to help you overcome common challenges:
- Use visual aids (such as infographics) to communicate information
- Get feedback from a diverse range of individuals to better understand their needs and opinions
- Use case studies of other organisations who have implemented effective mental health strategies in the workplace and highlight the benefits
- Show the links between good mental health and performance, productivity, customer service, etc.
- Make a list of quick, easy, low-cost wins to implement straight away
- Find champions within your business that are willing to support the new strategy
- Be realistic with goals and timeframes for implementation – don’t try to do too much too soon
- Ensure information is easy to access and visible to everyone
If you’ve made it to the end of this guide, we don’t need to tell you just how important it is to create and implement a mental health and wellbeing strategy from your workplace.
Along with the human benefits, there are lots of gains to be had in terms of productivity, motivation, staff retention, employee engagement, innovation and much more when employees feel seen, heard, appreciated and supported.
Yes, getting a mental health and wellbeing strategy in place and firing on all cylinders takes time and patience. However, it’s important to remember that change takes time. Not only that, but mental health is an incredibly sensitive subject – one that lots of people have a misguided understanding of.
It’s important to remember that when you commit to building a strategy like this, you’re looking to make a real, tangible change to the lives of employees in the business. That holds real value and, as such, is worth persisting with. Just be sure to check in with your mental health on the journey and make sure you are practicing what you preach on a personal level. You matter too!
Useful Information & Resources
Mind provides advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem. As well as campaigning to improve services, raise awareness and promote understanding, the charity also offers a wealth of information and support relating to mental health.
Samaritans offers a free 24/7 helpline for anyone who needs someone. The charity also offers a range of programmes for employers including their Welbeing in the Workplace elearning tool, along with in-house and open workplace training courses.
The Mental Health Foundation is the UK’s leading charity for everyone’s mental health. The charity aims to find and address the sources of mental health problems so that people and communities can thrive.
Part of the Mental Health Foundation, Mental Health at Work offers tailored mental health training workshops that create positive, lasting change at all levels of the workplace culture.
Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) is a charity dedicated to taking a stand against suicide. They do this by provoking conversation, running life-saving services and bringing people together so they reject living miserably and get help when they need it.