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How Can We Make Mental Health a Priority in Every Workplace?

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As a consultancy committed to supporting organisations to get the best from brilliant people, we recognise the critical importance of mental health and wellbeing initiatives as pillars of an inclusive workplace where employees from every walk of life feel valued, included and able to bring their A-game. 

We wanted to mark today’s World Mental Health Day by supporting this year’s theme, “make mental health and wellbeing for all a global priority”, by exploring why mental health should be an important strategic priority for leaders and highlight how organisations can build a positive mental health environment for their teams, supporting an inclusive and equitable workplace. 

Why prioritise mental health at work? 

It goes without saying that ill health is bad for business. When Covid started to tear its way through offices around the UK, organisations large and small took sweeping measures to mitigate risks to their teams and to their businesses. And yet, with an estimated 1 in 7 people experiencing mental health problems in the workplace, and the knock-on effects on absenteeism, presenteeism and reduced productivity, the risks of poor mental health to our people and our businesses get no such spotlight. 

More than1 in 4 UK workersare on the road to burnout, and increasingly, they are taking action: re-evaluating what they want from life, what they are willing to accept from work, and ultimately, moving on. The ‘Great Resignation’ saw over 400,000 UK workers leave their jobs between July and September 2021 (up from 270,000 two years earlier) and 6.5 million estimated to follow suit in the next year, in large part listing toxic work culture, inflexible working arrangements and dissatisfying work. 

Everyone has a part to play. 

With all this in mind, it is clear that mental health should be treated as a strategic priority. Organisations should ensure it is written into the organisational strategy, the risk register, the business plan – anywhere you would record other business priorities – making it clear who is accountable, what actions they should take and how these will be supported with a budget.  

On an individual and team basis, ensure you dedicate time, space and resource; add ‘staff wellbeing’ to the agenda of team meetings and ‘personal wellbeing’ to one-to-ones. You might consider creating a Teams/Slack communication channel for everyone to share resources, have open discussions and importantly feel safe reaching out to each other and supporting each other. 

With some levels of accountability given to managers, they need to feel confident and competent to have sensitive conversations with their teams and know where to signpost people to gain the support that they need. Unfortunately, most managers are unprepared to support mental health wellbeing in the workplace - aDeloitte study reportedthat just 22% of line managers received some form of training on mental health at work, even though 49% said that even basic training would be useful; ensure you reach out to your staff and provide the levels of support and training that they need.  

Mental health is an EDI issue. 

Mental health and wellbeing are pillars of a diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplace.One on fourpeople experience mental health issues each year, so in a team representing the diversity of the UK, it’s not a case of ‘if’ mental health becomes an issue for your colleagues, but how you are supporting your whole team to stay as well as possible, identifying and mitigating stressors and triggers, and helping those with mental health issues to stay well at work, access support when they need it, and return to work after periods of illness. 

Of course, mental health doesn’t exist in a vacuum – it’s impacted by, and has an impact on, so many personal and societal factors: poverty, discrimination, physical health, and disability to name a few. The way we feel is affected not just by our personal circumstances but also by the world around us – our physical environment, world events and the news cycle, our family, friends and community. 

The pandemic magnified how these social factors impact on and intersect with our wellbeing, as we saw people of colour face higher risks of death (an in turn, of bereavement), elderly and disabled people isolated due to clinical vulnerability, women shouldering the demands of increased caring responsibilities, and LGBTQ+ people cut off from supportive communities of peers. It was said that “we’re all weathering the same storm but in very different boats,” and it’s important to maintain that lens when thinking about mental health in the workplace. Mental health – from maintaining wellbeing to accessing support for mental ill health – is an issue of equity and inclusion. 

There are obvious environmental factors that will have a huge impact on our wellbeing, like working from a messy office with no natural light, but our work environment is also fundamentally made up of the culture and relationships in our workplace. Where these are exclusionary, discriminatory or toxic, where we feel unsupported or undervalued, where we are overworked or underpaid, our wellbeing will suffer. Thus, inclusion is key – all colleagues - especially those from communities that face marginalisation - need to feel able, encouraged and safe to contribute fully, to seize opportunities, to take risks, to offer challenge, to progress their career, to say ‘no’, and to take breaks. 

Take (collective) ownership of mental health. 

Mental health is clearly a strategic priority in terms of staff productivity, retention and ultimately organisational reputation. With this in mind, it’s easy to dive in with well-intentioned ideas, and indeed, plenty of companies offer off-the-shelf wellbeing packages that many employers roll out without thinking too much about what their team might most benefit from.  

The key here is collaboration – ask! There’s no point investing in discounted gym memberships if your team’s main complaint is that they are consistently working too late to enjoy leisure activities. Surveys, focus groups and interviews can help get an idea of the main challenges facing your team, and the sort of initiatives that would be most beneficial. Initiatives should aim to boost staff wellbeing and prevent mental health issues, as well as to offer specific support for those facing mental ill health. 

Ownership also means accountability. This must stem from leadership and translate right the way through the fabric of the organisation – think induction, training, supervision, appraisal, internal comms, HR. How is every single employee accountable to creating and promoting an inclusive, healthy environment? What are the expectations and specific targets? How are these measured and reported? It’s vital that staff have a chance to have their say and hold leadership accountable to targets – for example through regular wellbeing surveys with results reported back with a ‘you said, we did’ action list. 

We have open conversations with clients on a day-to-day basis around how inclusivity is now more critical than ever to organisational development. If you’d like to discuss how we may be able to support you in this area, or direct you to organisations and resources that may be able to support you on your journey, please get in touch.