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Of course there’s nothing wrong with any of the above, they do all have a place, and there is obviously a benefit to be had from a constant supply of fresh fruit, free massages and an hour or two of the working week being given over to socialising among colleagues. But, the world has changed and the awareness of what it takes to maintain positive physical and mental health and well-being in the workplace – whether that’s a traditional office, home office or a mix of both - is now at the forefront of every modern company’s thinking.
Mental health is at the core of everything. We’re all aiming to reach a state of well-being in which every individual can cope with the everyday stresses of life, work productively and fruitfully, and contribute to their community. Easy, right?
Maybe not. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reveals that one in eight people currently live with a mental health issue, and this can significantly impact employee well-being and performance. Therefore, supporting mental health and wellness in the workplace is a moral duty and a business imperative – and an apple a day just doesn’t cut it. “Mental health is no longer something any company can ignore,” explains Michelle Leung, HR Officer, Cigna Healthcare. “If the pandemic taught a lesson to businesses, it was about the importance of employee well-being, and how it’s necessary to take positive steps to consider mental health across every part of the working life. It’s even more complicated today with the popularity of hybrid working, so small gestures really aren’t enough anymore. Companies need to have a strategy in place.”
In the past, employers often overlooked the mental health of their employees, focusing more on their physical health and safety. Some of the common practices just mentioned could easily be extended to include such initiatives as dress down Friday, at-seat yoga, and other superficial perks that did little to address the root causes of mental ill health or promote a positive workplace culture.
The current focus on mental health at work has been driven by various factors from policy changes and legal requirements to an overall growing societal awareness of mental health issues, and employee influence.
Factors driving the focus on mental health and well-being in the workplace
In recent years there has been a global shift in workplace policy providing guidance for employers. Examples include the UK government’s independent expert review of mental health and employers, 'Thriving at Work', which set out a framework of core and enhanced standards for employers to adopt to improve mental health outcomes for their staff. And in July 2022, Safe Work Australia released its new model Code of Practice: ‘Managing psychosocial hazards at work’, which made psychological health and safety a top priority. Positively managing mental health by understanding modern policy and good governance underpins positive employee engagement and benefits everyone.
Everyone should feel safe and supported to talk about their mental health at work. If an employee is treated differently because of a mental health issue, employers could be held accountable and risk facing prosecutions under the laws that protect mental ill health in the workplace.
In the UK, employers have a duty of care to protect the health and safety of their employees under the Health and Safety at Work Act and make reasonable adjustments for employees with disabilities under the Equality Act 2010. Mental ill health can be considered a disability if it has a long-term and substantial effect on a person's ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.
Many employers have adopted best practices and guidance from professional bodies such as the CIPD, MIND and the AIC in Singapore, which provide factsheets, toolkits and additional resources on mental health in the workplace. Employers are creating roles such as the Mental Health Champion. This is a team member who is trained to provide peer support by raising awareness and promoting good mental health. There are also initiatives such as World Mental Health Awareness Week and Time to Talk Day that encourage employers and employees to raise awareness and start conversations about mental health at work.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the mental health of millions of people around the world, as well as on the way we work. The Cigna Healthcare 360 Global Well-being Survey revealed that 84% of employees are stressed. This highlights the need for employers to support their employees with workload management, flexible working arrangements, open communication channels, well-being programmes and access to counselling or other forms of social support.
Employers have realised that making a mental health at work commitment to support employees can bring benefits such as improved productivity, reduced absenteeism, lower staff turnover, fewer cases of burnout, enhanced reputation and increased employee engagement. According to WHO, two of the most common mental health conditions, depression and anxiety, cost the global economy US$ 1 trillion annually. Investment in employee mental health can pay dividends: The University of California, Riverside1 found that organisations which invested in employee well-being saw a 5% increase in productivity, with each dollar spent on well-being programmes resulting in a reduction of US$3.27 in health costs and US$2.73 in absenteeism costs.
Employees have become more vocal and proactive in demanding better mental health support from their employers and creating a 'force for change' within organisations. The rise in popularity of staff forums and diversity networks means employees have also become more willing to share their own experiences of mental ill health and seek help when needed.
What does mental health support in the workplace look like in 2023?
Today, employee mental and physical well-being support is more comprehensive, strategic and tailored. Whether it’s driven by an individual from the top down or discussed, organised, and executed through a ‘well-being’ committee which includes those across all levels of an organisation. Whatever the starting point, the goal is a universal one – to ensure every challenge to positive mental health and inclusion is considered and, where possible, underpinned with the right support in place. It’s impossible to be ready for everything, mental health isn’t a one-size-fits-all problem, but leaders/employers can adopt strategies and introduce systems that create a well-being-first mentality across their organisation.
The following strategies all help to create a robust mental health support plan regardless of whether you’re a microbusiness or multi-national corporation. Ensuring your mental health strategy is formally written down and readily available to all will show your current and future employees that you care about their well-being.
How to build a comprehensive mental health and well-being framework for business
Supportive employers communicate regularly and openly with their employees about mental health issues, policies and resources. They also create a trusting and psychologically safe culture where employees feel comfortable expressing their concerns or needs without fear of stigma or discrimination. Staff surveys, focus groups and regular one-to-one meetings ensure that every employee has the opportunity to talk about their mental health concerns.
Mental Health Policy implementation
Implementing clear and consistent policies and procedures that support mental health at work, such as flexible working policies, sickness absence policies, return-to-work plans, grievance procedures, and anti-bullying policies, is crucial. Employers should also ensure that these policies are aligned with any legal requirements and best practices and made accessible to all employees.
Employers should develop a strategic approach to mental health at work aligned with their organisational vision, values and goals. They should also monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of their mental health interventions and initiatives using data and feedback. According to Unmind2, 67% of HR decision-makers around the world said that measuring employee well-being is a priority for their business in 2023.
Improved manager training
The WHO recommends manager training to direct employees to support and recognise when they need it. Rather than managers taking reactive action, they should focus on continuous learning – demonstrating active listening and preventative care. Leaders themselves must set a healthy example.
Innovative well-being training programmes
Formal training will help managers tackle the causes of mental health problems, but managers are often time poor. ‘Nano learning’ is a growing trend. Simply put, the goal of nano learning is to make it easy for people to take on new knowledge quickly. The information can be retained easily – through soundbites, text, videos and images – and the courses typically last between two and 10 minutes, focused on a single learning outcome.
A 2023 trial of nano-content manager training showed real change. In a study of more than 1,000 managers, 87% were more confident handling mental health difficulties in their teams, and 79% increased their knowledge of mental health3. With this increased focus, managers have more time to embrace training and promote a mentally healthy workplace.
Employee assistance programmes
An increasing number of employers now provide access to employee assistance programmes (EAPs) that offer confidential counselling, advice and information services for employees experiencing personal or work-related problems that may affect their mental health or well-being. And with 81% of workers4 reporting that they will be looking for workplaces that support mental health in the future and Cigna Healthcare’s 360 Global Well-Being Survey revealing that 40% of employees are looking for mental health support from their employer, having these tools at your business’ disposal may help attract future talent and retain current staff.
Work/life balance consideration
Employers that promote a healthy work/life balance for their employees by setting realistic expectations, managing workloads, encouraging breaks and holidays, and respecting boundaries between work and personal time actively demonstrate that they understand the importance of employee mental health. With the movement to home-based and hybrid working, it’s potentially harder for employees to manage their work/life balance, which makes it all the more important for employers to monitor and promote a healthy approach.
The link between nutrition and mental health is well-documented5, and there’s a growing trend for employers to educate their workforce on the benefits of eating well. Many employers now provide healthy food options at work, subsidise healthy meals or provide communal areas so staff can dine together, ensuring they take a screen break and connect with colleagues in an informal setting.
Taking steps to a workplace mental health strategy
So, firstly, if you’re reading this with the office fruit bowl in plain sight, don’t worry, it’s still a good thing, and there’s also no need to cancel the masseuse, reconsider dress-down Friday or opt against giving every new starter their own personalised mug. But, aside from these well-meaning gestures, businesses need a considered, company-wide approach.
Everything should begin with a strategy that maps out a pathway to becoming a company with a positive approach to well-being and mental health. While being in a position to react and respond in the right way to mental health challenges that arise, a focus on preventative measures and early intervention could help avoid them occurring in the first place.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to mental health, the approach needs to be as personal as your employees are individual, what works for one, may not work for another. Which means communication is at the heart of any strategy – is your workplace an open environment that allows employees to relay their well-being issues? Are your managers trained to spot and manage signs of mental health issues with employees?
And, finally, find a way to ensure everyone is on board with your new approach, highlight why it works for everyone, why it’s in everyone’s interests, and how everyone is part of this – from the C-suite to entry-level. This isn’t a fruit box-ticking exercise, this is something with true meaning, genuine value, and designed to make the working world a better place to be.