The rhythmic hum of the office printer, a colleague’s infectious laughter ringing out during lunch breaks, and the subtle aroma of freshly brewed coffee might seem like everyday occurrences in a regular workspace.
However, beneath this facade of normalcy, a silent storm brews: the growing challenge of mental health.
Last year, more than 450,000 employees in the UK found themselves caught in this storm, taking long-term leave due to mental health issues. The North West, with 86,000 affected employees, saw the densest cloud cover, followed closely by London and the West Midlands. When such statistics confront us, it’s crucial to remember that behind each number is a personal story, a life affected by challenges ranging from anxiety and depression to self-harm, suicide and psychosis.
In one corner office, James, a middle-aged manager, noticed the change in Sarah, a team member in her early fifties. She was always vibrant, a beacon of positivity. But lately, she seemed distant, lost in thought. The age group of 50-64 years, which Sarah falls into, was identified as the most affected by mental health-related long-term sick leaves, as per recent analysis.
In the quiet of his office, James often rehearsed conversations in his mind. Should he ask Sarah if she was okay? What if he misstepped with his words or, worse, appeared intrusive? What if he unintentionally made things worse? These questions played in a continuous loop in his mind.
James wants to help but eventually decides it’s not worth the risk. And after all, Sarah is a grown woman; she’ll work it out.
Across the office floor, Sarah felt the weight of her struggles press down on her, but what added to her pain was a growing feeling of isolation. To her, this silence echoed louder than any spoken word. She mistook his hesitancy for indifference. Perhaps no one really cared, she thought, causing her to feel even more adrift.
The emotional emptiness combined with the isolation and lack of support from work means that Sarah doesn’t see much point in coming to work and ends up taking several months off sick.
The stakes are high, both on a personal and economic level. The London School of Economics highlighted that the UK economy grapples with an annual cost of £118 billion due to mental illness. This scenario demands employers pivot, shifting their focus to foster a more supportive and understanding work environment.
Five Strategies Employers Can Adopt to Nurture Employee Mental Wellbeing:
Training Managers: Managers like James can be the first line of defence. We create a more empathetic and proactive leadership by training managers to identify signs of mental health challenges and equip them with support tools. It’s not about solving problems; it’s about simply being there as a person, and even if Sarah didn’t want to talk, Simply knowing that someone cares is often enough. This training should be a yearly occurrence at a minimum and allow questions to be asked without fear of judgment or consequence.
Widespread Mental Health Education: Gone are the days when discussing mental health was a taboo. By incorporating mental health education into the company’s culture, employees from all levels can gain awareness, reducing stigma and promoting a more understanding workspace. If someone knows what ‘Not good’ actually looks & feels like, then they’re more likely to say something, especially if mental health is widely accepted. The easiest and best time to start this is often during the company induction. Deliver the message immediately: “We give a shit about our people!”
Revamping People Policies: Traditional HR policies, often tilted towards business wellbeing, need a revamp. Crafting policies that precede employee wellbeing ensures that the workforce feels valued, appreciated, and cared for. A compassionate leave policy of 3 days sends a very clear message: “We aren’t bothered about your grief; we just want you back in work”, whether that’s how it’s intended or not. Having a solid wellbeing policy isn’t just about sending a message; it creates a plan for approaching employee wellbeing.
Equipping the Workplace for Life’s Challenges: When you interview a person, you will see them at their best and in their best clothes, using their best language, presenting their best side. But life is unpredictable. Whether it’s a family crisis, a health scare, or personal loss – At some point, you see that person in their worst moments. Employers can offer flexible work arrangements, counselling services, and employee assistance programs or create safe spaces within the office for employees to retreat, regroup, and find balance. This is also where we look at initiatives like mental health first aid to have reactive and proactive support in place.
Promoting Work-Life Balance: Encouraging employees to take regular breaks, offering time off, and fostering a culture that values personal time can go a long way in ensuring mental wellbeing. Remember, a rested employee is a productive and happy one.
As employers, our collective (and legal) responsibility is to ensure that our workforce remains physically and mentally fit. By adopting these strategies, we can move towards a future where every employee, just like Sarah, feels supported, understood, and valued in their workspace.
This isn’t about being pink and fluffy; it’s about caring about people as people and putting strategies in place to make that a reality. Doing this stuff doesn’t just make Sarah feel happier, but the research has shown that it reduces the chance of her going off sick, leaving the company or turning up but doing the bare minimum.
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