How to implement a proactive mental health strategy in the workplace

By Liz Walker

In 2016 Unum and The Mental Health Foundation produced “Added value: mental health as a workplace asset”. The report revealed by 2030 the challenges arising from staff mental health concerns could cost the UK economy £32.7 billion. Many companies are introducing and championing workplace mental health strategies, but how can employers ensure mental health support fully benefits all employees?

Promote ‘safe spaces’ and cognitive hygiene 

A new whitepaper from Morneau Shepell is centered around “cognitive hygiene” – the ability to effectively manage negative thinking to prevent exacerbating mental health issues.

This involves encouraging employees to learn skills such as mindfulness, meditation and a good work/life balance to help them cope in difficult situations. Employers should then teach staff to use sustainable daily actions to remind themselves to regularly continue these practices, such as setting an alarm to go home on time and making sure they take a full lunch break away from their desks.

Some businesses have found workplace areas designed for groups to relax in, to be helpful alleviating stress. However, offerings don’t need to be overly lavish to have a positive impact.  It could simply be creating a small, designated area or even a bit of garden space, where teams are encouraged to take breaks from their hectic schedules.

Create tailored solutions 

The Financial Times’ Health at Work report shows, ill health affects corporate productivity through employee absenteeism and “presenteeism” — when staff turn up to work, but are ineffective when they get there. Companies should try to give managers the latitude to shape mental health support according to the needs of their teams.

Promoting more flexible work patterns, such as enabling employees to take time off for their mental health or allowing remote working during difficult periods, can mean individuals continue their roles effectively, as they can engage with tasks when in the right frame of mind to do so.

Boost internal education 

Bupa research revealed one in three line managers admit they’d struggle to detect mental health issues in work, but it’s imperative managers have the training to maintain positive staff relationships and ensure team members are able to perform well.

Training should not only focus on reactive measures, but also teach managers to spot ‘triggers’, to hold sensitive conversations and know how to signpost to effective support.

Some may benefit from being sent away on a one or two-day course, but many others will get significant gain from a lunchtime or breakfast session. Offering short and frequent training opportunities can ensure maximum attendance.

Encourage open dialogue  

Creating an environment where mental health is discussed openly amongst employees, can be one of the best ways to lessen its taboo. Establish a mental health champions network to combat negative reactions and encourage open workplace dialogue. Businesses can also introduce Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPS), often offered with group risk products like Income Protection, for those who may need more advanced support. EAPS offer direct, confidential contact with experts who can support individuals with areas causing emotional distress, from family issues to work-related problems, addiction and mental illness.

To create a positive environment supporting mental health, it’s important to build a general culture of health, combining preventative and reactive programmes for your employees. There is no “silver bullet”, but the most important ingredient for success is a commitment from the top down to invest in employees’ physical and mental wellbeing.

 Liz Walker is  HR Director, Unum UK