An introduction to best supporting the mental health of employees

Mental health charity Mind reports that, at any particular time, one in six workers is dealing with a mental health problem such as stress or anxiety.

It’s important then, that you take your duties to your employees seriously when it comes to their wellbeing.

This is not only to support them as individuals, but also to avoid the impact that poor mental health can have on the wider business, through consequences such as decreased productivity, low morale and absence.

Over the last decade, businesses have really been upping the ante when it comes to supporting the mental health of their employees. And the benefits are being felt among the workforce: Business in the Community’s 2020 report found that 63 per cent of workers felt that their organisation supported their mental health (up from 55 per cent the year before).

There’s still a lot of room for improvement, but the numbers are heading in the right direction. And many leaders are seeing positive impacts on their businesses as a result.

This guide shares what to consider when implementing mental health support, common mistakes to avoid and quick wins you can start implementing today.

What to consider when implementing mental health support

Issues specific to your business

Because of the nature of some jobs, there are particular industries that see higher-than-average rates of workplace-related mental health issues among staff.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reports that employees working in electricity, gas, steam and air conditioning supply; public administration and defence; compulsory social security; human health and social work; and education are among the most likely to suffer.

With that in mind, it’s worth looking at your own company to identify niche areas that could be posing particular risks to employees’ mental wellbeing. These could be industry specific, such as the pressure felt in high-stakes roles like medical care, or characteristic of your individual business, such as management style, distribution of budget or workflow systems.

Focusing on these areas is key to helping staff maintain good levels of mental health and should be targeted in your efforts.

The cost of poor mental health to your business

Mental health conditions (including stress, depression and anxiety) are one of the four most common reasons for sickness-related absences in the workforce, accounting for 12 per cent of unplanned days off in 2020, according to the Office for National Statistics.

They can also cause dips in productivity and efficiency, meaning that mental health costs your business financially. But the good news is that investment in support really does pay off.

Deloitte found an average return of £5 for every £1 spent on maintaining good mental health among staff, which is well worth considering when you’re costing new processes or budgeting for employee benefits to aid mental wellbeing.

Stu King, BeeZee Bodies

Stu King learnt to prioritise health and wellbeing at BeeZee Bodies

“When we were younger, we’d do crazy hours without any side effects, but this only lasts so long. We learned that we had to prioritise the long-term health of the business and ourselves.”

Stu King, CEO of BeeZee Bodies

The cold hard facts

It might be having a far more serious effect than you realise. Recently, Deloitte calculated that poor mental health in workforces costs UK employers up to £45bn every year due to the associated absences, reduced productivity and staff turnover.

Common mistakes with supporting employee mental health

Only making superficial changes

Offering benefits such as employee healthcare plans that include counselling services or “lunch and learn” style sessions like meditation masterclasses can be really valuable. But let’s be very clear – if known stressors within your business aren’t also addressed, these extras aren’t going to be effective.

In fact, in providing these services while failing to improve working conditions – for instance, overwhelming workloads or the pressure of unachievable targets – all you’re doing is shifting the onus of improving employee mental health from the business onto the individuals. This is going to create more pressure and cultivate negative feelings among colleagues.

Waiting for staff to approach you

Mind found that only half of workers who experience poor mental health will bring it up with their manager. While you may be able to encourage employees to come forward – perhaps by talking more openly as a company about mental health or offering more opportunities for confidential conversations with managers – some people will still be reluctant to initiate contact.

So, it’s up to employers and managers to take a proactive approach in spotting the signs of poor mental health in individuals and reaching out appropriately.

This isn’t easy, however. Everyone experiences mental health issues differently and signs can include everything from poor concentration to being late, inconsistent performance to irritability – all of which can also occur for reasons that have nothing to do with mental wellbeing.

This means that proper training is key and should be given to managers of all levels. Those who work with staff day-to-day and have regular interactions with the majority of colleagues are best positioned to pick up on any early warning signs. And, the earlier the intervention, often the more successful it is.

Katrina Parson

Attendance was high when Katrina Parson offered staff mental health and wellbeing training

“We provided every member of our team with mental health and wellbeing training from Mind. The sessions included strategies and mechanisms to keep us all well and resilient. Attendance was optional, but 98 per cent of our team took part.”

Katrina Parson, HR manager at LSI Architects

The cold hard facts

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), unmanageable workloads are the main cause of work-related stress, while management style is the second most common cause.

Quick wins for improving mental health support at work

Be open about mental health

From our research, we know that a common barrier to offering support is a fear of compromising employee privacy or assuming that colleagues will not want to discuss personal matters at work.

As a business leader, it’s important for you to lead by example and openly discuss the topic of mental health and normalise conversations around things like stress, anxiety and depression. Empathise to show employees that you care about their mental health and be authentic when talking about these issues.

This will help colleagues to feel confident enough to come forward when they need support, without fear of being judged or feeling vulnerable.

Make resources easily accessible

Perhaps you already have some healthcare benefits in place that cover mental health or maybe you’re looking at training some mental health first aiders. You might also be collecting written or video material to make available to staff and be overhauling your policies around mental health.

All of these resources can be really effective – so long as employees know about them and can easily access them.

Take every opportunity to remind colleagues about the support on offer and encourage them to make use of it. If uptake is still low, gather feedback on why – perhaps there are issues around confidentiality or convenience.

Protect employee privacy

For colleagues to trust managers enough to talk openly with them about mental health, they need to feel that their privacy is being taken seriously. Confidentiality should be fiercely respected and employees need to know that this is the case.

For people to feel safe enough to have an open conversation with their manager, it helps if there are clear, predetermined channels to go through when disclosing mental health issues.

Whether that’s having direct access to a known mental health first aider, close contact with a line manager or the ability to easily book a meeting with a senior member of staff, it’s important that staff feel there is a safe and confidential process in place.

Always remember that it is up to the individual how much information they share and what – if any – of that is passed on to the team. Pushing them for more could be seriously counterproductive and this is a subject that needs to be handled sensitively; get advice from a qualified HR professional if you’re worried about how the process should work.

Luke Lang, Crowdcube

Don't let mental health support get forgotten – Luke Lang has made a point of reminding staff at Crowdcube that resources are there

“We’ve got some mental health first aiders. People can get mental health support and a free wellbeing app through their company healthcare too. We’ve made a point about reminding people of stuff that already existed.”

Luke Lang, co-founder of Crowdcube

The cold hard facts

According to the HSE, stress, depression and anxiety were behind more than half (51 per cent) of all work-related ill health and caused 55 per cent of all working days lost due to work-related ill health in 2019 and 2020.

What’s more, the CIPD found that poor mental health was the most common cause of long-term absence due to sickness in the UK. Stress-related absence was found to have increased in nearly two-fifths of organisations.