5 ways to support employee mental health

Employee mental health has always been hugely important to the success of a business but with the advent of coronavirus mental health is now a metaphorical big red flashing beacon of ‘PAY ATTENTION TO ME’. Learn how you can support the mental wellbeing of your employees.

The HSE states that employers must take ‘reasonable measures’ to support the mental health of staff but that’s about as far as their guidance goes on the subject. So how Do you do that? Do you need to hire a mental health trainer or consultant to do it? Well, that is a great way of achieving it (and if I may say, is what I’m particularly good at!) but for many employers it’s the solid gold solution when in the current climate solid gold just isn’t feasible. So, what can you do to support your team? Well, first we need to properly understand the issue.

COVID is taking a quiet toll on employee mental health

COVID has created a world of fear, uncertainty, and massive changes to our way of life. It’s not about missing out on KFC, the football season and trips to the beach. It’s about not knowing whether you will still have a job in 6 months, whether a vulnerable loved one will contract the virus and whether the kids will be safe to go back to school. Social isolation and changes in daily routine are both common indicators of depression, but now, suddenly they’re possible causes of depression, rather than symptoms.

Employees have had to adjust drastically and rapidly to new ways of working. In many cases deal with the same work pressures as before but now with added personal difficulties and anxiety about the future. A recent survey suggested that almost half of employees have reported feeling isolated.

Not wanting to sound sensationalist here but what we have as a result of this is a melting pot for mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, and that’s before we get to the stress and trauma being experienced by people working in public health and care which will be an article all on its own.

“It’ll be fine, people bounce back”

All too often I hear and see of mental health problems being ignored in the workplace. Whether it’s the signs being missed entirely, people not being listened to or believed or managers putting their head firmly in the sand because mental health is scary and expensive.

Of course, I’m being flippant here, mostly. But this is what we see all too often because the stigma and misunderstanding of mental -although much improved on a few years back – is still very much alive and well. And while it is true that many people are able to overcome difficulties and triggers, many others are not. The fact of the matter is that we all have mental health, whether it’s a state of positive mental health, negative or anywhere in the middle. And it’s on a continuum meaning it’s constantly changing depending on what’s happening in life. Once that needle gets past a certain point and into the amber or red, many people need some support with pushing that needle back up to the green.

Ignoring mental health is not only costly to the health of your employee, but also your business.

Negative effects on the business

  • It creates a toxic workplace
  • It can have a massive negative impact on productivity
  • Sick days and staff turnover increase
  • It opens you up to accusations of discrimination or bullying
  • It reflects poorly on you and your business

Negative effects for the employee

  • Increase of incidents of mental illness
  • Lower productivity and performance
  • Less trust in management
  • A risk to physical health and safety (See my blog about ‘Mental health at work’)
  • May become disillusioned and look to work elsewhere

Catching the needle in amber

I can (and regularly do) talk for hours on how we can spot the signs and symptoms of someone who is struggling with their mental health and what to look out for varies depending on conditions, person, and circumstances. However, there are some key indicators we can look out for:

  • Losing interest in activities
  • Under performing at work
  • Feeling constantly exhausted or restless
  • Isolation from friends & family
  • Changes in appetite
  • Self-harming behaviour
  • Being overly self-critical or apologising a lot
  • Increased irritability
  • Increased alcohol consumption
  • Difficulties concentrating
  • Frequently missing work
  • Talking about death or dying
  • Feeling constantly low or hopeless

This isn’t to say if someone turns up work feeling and looking tired, they’re definitely depressed or if they snap at you over something small they’re mentally unwell. Life happens to us and it’s normal that we respond but maybe a combination of several or a sudden and severe change in any one of these can be a clue that something isn’t right.

How to support employee mental health.

  1. Check in with your team

This sounds simple but often gets put to one side because we’re too busy or we cram it in between calls so the whole thing is rushed. You would be amazed at what can be achieved by just taking the time to really listen to someone. Getting to know your reports personally, and especially when things are good, makes it a whole lot easier to identify when things aren’t so good.

Schedule regular 1-2-1 meetings with each of your reports and make it a point to ask how they’re going. If they give the generic ‘I’m alright’ then maybe, ask them again in a slightly different way because we all know ‘I’m alright’ is pretty meaningless. Here you can also discuss any concerns or questions the employee has and get a better feeling for what’s going on at the ground level.

This can be particularly helpful because in large team meetings or conference calls people might feel ashamed or embarrassed to speak up or it might not feel like the right time to share a concern. Making wellbeing part of your regular check ins makes your job easier, your employees’ life better and normalises the conversation around mental health.

  1. Education, education, education

How can you know what to watch out for or what to do about it without taking the time to learn first? Mental health can seem like a complex and daunting field to delve into but that’s why there are trained professionals to make it much easier, more accessible and answer questions. They can cover subjects such as

  • Mental health risk factors
  • Identifying the signs & symptoms
  • How to support others who are struggling
  • Stress management
  • Different mental health conditions
  • Self-care

During my corporate seminars I will tailor it to the business I’m speaking to. After all, a remote working sales person will have different triggers than a warehouse worker but both environments offer their individual challenges.

A study conducted by Deloitte in 2017 indicated that by investing in employee mental health awareness training can have a return of up to 8:1. There’s nothing stopping you from trying to do this yourself but it’s not a subject area that you want to get wrong and picking out the facts from the falsehoods or misunderstandings isn’t easy. Plus – and trust me on this one – it’s one of those subjects where unless it’s conveyed well will see a lot of nodding heads and people watching the backs of their eye lids.

  1. Train those key people

Every organisation has those key people. The ones who others go to when things aren’t going well. The people who are always offering a shoulder, a kind word and has genuine care for others. It might me a manager or team leader or even Jim the forklift operator. In many workplaces these people are an untapped resource and the glue that holds the team together.

When you consider that 1 in 4 people will suffer from a mental health issue in any given year then it doesn’t take much to realise that statistically speaking an organisation of 100 people will have 25 people who are struggling, and that’s being conservative. It’s crucially important that you have a way of supporting people in work and using these key people effectively is a great way of achieving this.

Mental health first aid is a rapidly growing type of training which people all over the world are qualifying in because it’s not only valuable, it’s literally lifesaving. A mental health first aider – like a physical first aider- is there to provide front-line support to someone who is struggling. Whether that’s stress, anxiety or a full blown mental health crisis where someone is in immediate danger. Something which I have first-hand experience in where people who were really struggling and considering ending their life received that crucial initial support and helped along to receive professional treatment.

There are loads of mental health first aid trainers out there and not all are made equally but at the very least they should cover:

  • What is first aid for mental health?
  • How to spot the signs and symptoms of various mental health conditions
  • How to provide advice and start a conversation with someone struggling
  • Substance abuse
  • Stress
  • The tools and procedures of supporting someone who is struggling

The cost of a course like this varies but shouldn’t cost the earth, £120-170 per person is reasonable and worth it when you consider the positive impact it can have on the workforce.

One thing to point out here is that training one mental health first aider in a company of 100 people isn’t reasonable. Suggested ratios vary depending on the workplace, but I recommend having 1 MH first aider for every 15-20 employees or if working in smaller shifts then 1 person per shift. Not only does this mean that someone is available at all times the workplace is open, but it also means that the MH first aider has someone to turn to themselves for support because this really can be a very emotionally demanding role.

  1. Encourage self-care

In the current climate many people are so busy fire fighting what’s going on around them that they neglect their own self-care. This is a classic case of the goose and the golden egg. That is, if someone fails to take care of that which produces the gold (themselves) then eventually the golden eggs will slow down or even stop when they break down physically or mentally.

Enforcing time away from the screen is a good start but also office walks, making exercise accessible, permitting paid ‘wellness days’ and having an area away from the hustle of business life can all be very effective at improving wellbeing and workplace culture.

  1. Create and stick to a wellbeing strategy

Any manager knows that a business can’t run on-the-fly. As much as many may feel some resentment or even resistance towards them policies and strategies are essential to the effective running of the organisation. But only if there is buy-in and they are actually used.

Anyone can go on google and download a wellbeing policy, change a few names and call it a company wellbeing policy but let’s face it, that’s a box ticking exercise and won’t really give any benefit. That’s why it’s so important to sit down with your staff, find out their concerns, questions and ideas around culture and wellbeing and build your strategy off the back of that.

It could incorporate all of the topics discussed above along with an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) which can have an ROI of 6:1 for a business of 500 employees spending £10 per head with just a 10% uptake using the EAP ROI tool. Also things like mental health days, bereavement leave that is more than a token gesture of a few days and company-provided therapists.

Your strategy should be personal to your organisation and not just made available to all staff but also have had staff input in its creation. Regardless of what your policy is it should be kept up-to-date and relevant to changing times.

Supporting mental health in the workplace can feel daunting and many worry about the expense involved but not only is that expense worth it many times over and when you consider that poor mental health costs UK employers £45 billion per year it becomes clear that doing nothing isn’t an option. But it doesn’t need to cost the earth, small and simple steps can make a huge difference to employee mental health, happiness, and the bottom line.