Julie Jones, of Blackdog, a mental health training and workplace wellbeing consultancy, explains why this is an issue every business should be on top of...

When national mental health charity Mind recently demonstrated that poor mental health is costing employers up to £42bn a year, via its Thriving at Work report, it was a wake-up call.

Businesses need to recognise it’s time to start paying attention to this important topic and the impact it is having. In addition, we spend so much of our lives in work and yet, according to research, they tend to be the most unhappy part of our lives. It’s time to address some of these issues and make changes. 

Surely, it is in all of our interests to do so.

According to the Office of National Statistics, 17 million sick days were lost in 2015 owing to staff experiencing mental health issues. The main issues being stress, anxiety and depression. 

These are issues many people can relate to, either from personal experience or from knowing someone who has suffered. Despite this, mental health continues to be a stigmatised topic, with high numbers of employees feeling reluctant to discuss their mental health with their employers. 

So, what can employers do to address mental health in their organisation? 

There are many things employers can do that need not be expensive but are likely to have a positive impact upon their staff wellbeing and a positive investment to boot. Ultimately it is the responsibility of any employer to recognise mental ill-health and give their employees the support they need.

For starters, training is essential. There is so much misunderstanding surrounding the topic of mental health that unfortunately it has become the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. 

Some basic training in mental health awareness can help an organisation understand and recognise the key issues that people are experiencing and learn how to best respond to them. 

It starts with the idea that we all have mental health. All of us. Sometimes our mental health is good and sometimes, due to a whole range of factors, from difficult life changes to workplace demands, our mental health can be poor. 

Once people have some basic training, some of the barriers can be broken down and conversations can start happening. 

Experiencing poor mental health is nothing to be ashamed of, but actually is just a realistic facet of being human.

Training can also help employers take a closer look at their organisational culture and whether it could be contributing to poor mental health. For example, is there a tendency for some of members of staff to miss their breaks or is it difficult for them to book annual leave? 

Making a workplace more mentally healthy does not have to be complicated. 

A lot of the time it’s about having more awareness and being able to talk about it. It’s about ensuring staff feel supported. It’s also about giving mental health the same recognition as physical health. 

After all, this is the law as part of the Equality Act 2010.

In addition, employers and line managers need not feel that they have to be counsellors or feel alone in supporting their staff. There are many resources for improving staff wellbeing, such as online toolkits and employee assistance programmes. 

Training can help direct businesses to these resources and tailor them to work for that specific workplace.

Although there is a long road ahead for workplace wellbeing, reports such as the Mental Health at Work Report 2017 suggest that the landscape is beginning to change and more and more businesses are making mental health their business. 

Are you going to make it yours?

How to support your employees

1. Rather than silently hoping for an employee to make the first move, establish an open line of communication by letting your staff know you are available to talk about mental health issues.

Creating an environment where mental health is discussed openly among employees is one of the best ways to lessen its taboo. Simply instating an open door policy can make all the difference.

2. Gone are the days of stuffy cubicles and corporate boardrooms.

Clever businesses are waking up to the idea of designing offices with wellbeing in mind. Google’s famous ‘campuses’ offer on-site massages and dedicated nap rooms, while Lego’s Billund HQ features indoor slides and table football, where you can let off the morning’s stresses with some good old-fashioned fun. 

Liz Walker, HR director of employee benefits provider Unum, said: “Some businesses have found the creation of ‘safe spaces’ – areas designed for groups to relax and take their minds off work – to be helpful to alleviate stres. However, there are cost-effective alternatives any company can introduce which can be just as successful. It could simply be creating a small, designated office area or even a bit of garden space, where teams are encouraged to take breaks from their hectic schedules.”

3. Don’t be the boss that praises late nights, overloads staff with unreasonable workloads and pressures people to remain in constant contact while off duty.

Liz suggests implementing small, regular actions, such as setting an alarm to go home on time every day or making sure you remind staff to take a full lunch break away from their desk, which can result in long-term, positive behaviour changes, that enhance and prolong mental wellbeing.

4. Why not overhaul your benefits system to offer some wellbeing-themed perks?

This could be anything from lunchtime yoga and reduced gym memberships, to flexible working and sabbaticals for personal growth. 

5. The first sign of getting help is admitting the issue is there in the first place.

“Business leaders and managers need to be trained to spot signs of poor or struggling mental health,” said mindset coach Emma Langton. 

Often, the problem is that managers feel that they don’t have the skills needed to contact an employee who is off sick for mental health reasons, for fear that it could cause further harm or lead to complaints. 

Liz believes adequate coaching can make all of the difference.

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

6. The issue may simply be that your staff feel too intimidated to speak about their personal issues with a senior member of staff.

If this is the case, you could offer regular one-on-one sessions with external counsellors who can pop into the office for an afternoon. 

“Establish a mental health champions network to combat negative reactions,” says Liz. 

“These are individuals who are available for informal chats with employees and can provide more detailed advice on the support available to those who might be struggling.”