Organisations are starting to prioritise the holistic well-being of their employees, adapting their cultures and benefits to support mental health wellness.
By Simon Kent
Awareness of mental health in the workplace has undoubtedly grown over the past few years. Headlines have been made and even Britain’s own royal family has contributed to the discussion. According to Sophie Hennekam, professor of management at Audencia Business School in France, the World Health Organisation has estimated that mental health conditions cost the global economy $1 trillion in lost productivity each year. In Europe, employees with mental disorders report 3.1 absenteeism days per month compared to one day per month among those without mental health issues. However, despite increasing awareness and the high cost of neglecting mental health, “Surprisingly little is known about how individuals with mental health conditions navigate the workplace,” she says.
HR is at the frontline of dealing with these issues and their impact on the workplace. Many industries are already proactive in providing support and help through training, but how can businesses push the agenda further?
Charles Alberts, head of health management at global professional services company Aon, says his company’s mental health strategy aims to create an “inclusive and supportive culture where people can be honest about their mental health.” This includes providing tools, techniques, and life skills for colleagues to look after their own and each other’s mental health whilst raising awareness of other relevant benefits and services.
Aon has trained 120 “Mental Health First Aiders” (MHFAs)—double their original target. “MHFAs help signpost colleagues who may be dealing with anxiety, depression, or bereavement to the care we offer through a wide range of benefits, including online learning resources, virtual doctors, employee assistance programmes (EAPs), and self-referral through PMI,” says Alberts. “By focusing on mental health, we have joined the dots to overall well-being and now have a ‘health, safety, and well-being’ team and strategy supporting colleagues holistically.”
A holistic approach is also gradually emerging in parts of the construction industry. The sector is perhaps one of the most impressive for its willingness to tackle mental health issues given the often-challenging workplace and culture. Indeed, the industry suffers from high rates of suicide: on average two workers every day.
Joscelyne Shaw is the director of strategy at Mates in Mind, a charity created by the Health in Construction Leadership Group (HCLG) with the support of the British Safety Council in September 2016. The charity offers information to employers on how to provide support and guidance for employees suffering from mental health issues, as well as how they can address it in their businesses.
“In the first instance, you need to make space for this discussion to happen in the workplace,” she says. “Furthermore, the business needs to be clear how this issue fits within their organisation so that they have a story of their own to tell. If a business is to create a positive culture for mental health, it’s about what happens in that business.”
Shaw emphasises that culture is more than just talk—it’s action. “It’s important to consider how you encourage and support more positive behaviours. That’s why this is not just a conversation—it’s about thinking how you are working together. We know that a policy in itself doesn’t create culture. It can be a first step, but it’s equally important to know what happens next.”
Mates in Mind is helping support policy makers and ensure that their initiatives to improve workplace culture actually make an impact. “If you have a policy that doesn’t deliver then people will lose heart, and this topic is such a personal one you need it to have integrity,” Shaw adds.
At family-run construction business Seddon, HR Manager Nicola Hodkinson makes clear the extent to which her business will go to support its workers. Having felt the impact of a colleague who took their own life, the business’ awareness and support initiatives are underlined with the provision of flexibility around how work is carried out. Very often, mental health issues are a factor of diverse and conflicting pressures on an individual: work, travel to work, family, technology-related stress, and so on. By enabling flexibility—for example, in travel times—some of those pressures can be mitigated.
Hodkinson is also clear that when an employee takes time off for mental health issues, the company is proactive in ensuring that person is dealing with their condition responsibly. “As an employer, we can ask what they are doing to help themselves whilst they’re having time off,” she says. “We have a right to say, ‘What are you doing to get better? Are you seeking professional help? Are you taking exercise?’, and so on.”
This approach is also supported by a willingness to openly discuss issues with employees, alongside a number of company-based stories shared by employees who have experienced or who continue to manage their own mental health issues.
At other companies, employee health is being addressed through more targeted initiatives. Lisa Rogers, HR manager of Fletcher Priest Architects, explains that her company has been working with Peppy Healthcare on initiatives for women. This was first targeted around maternity support, but the company is now exploring additional services for women going through menopause.
“We’re about 115 strong and a proportion of those are women of a certain age,” Rogers explains. “Menopause is not something that’s discussed and it can be a tough time. It can cause depression and absence due to sickness so providing support for that has to be a positive move.”
Women experiencing menopause can sleep badly and feel unwell, affecting their performance at a demanding job. Among other resources, Peppy offers a responsive support network where such issues can be openly discussed.
“Menopause is not a niche issue,” argues Mridula Pore, co-founder and CEO of Peppy Health. “Every woman who lives long enough will experience it at some point, with varying degrees of symptom severity at different times. And it’s not just women who need to be aware, but also their colleagues, managers, and partners.”
Many employee assistance programmes provide confidential health support and sometimes specific mental healthcare support, but there needs to be more understanding of mental health conditions and what the workplace can do to help. In many instances, support doesn’t need to be extensive, but it does need to be flexible and ready to meet the individual’s requirements and experiences—whatever they may be.