Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of supporting mental health in the workplace was becoming ever more apparent. Since the pandemic hit the UK, fear of the virus, the pressures of going into lockdown, concerns over being furloughed or made redundant have all taken their toll. Supporting mental health is now top of the agenda for many businesses, but for some it’s the first time that they’ve felt the need to consider mental health at work. So how can employers recognise when somebody is starting to struggle with their mental health, and what should be done if a problem is noticed? These three simple actions are the first steps that businesses can take:
1. Make mental health visible. For years there has been a perceived stigma around mental health. Employers who show that they are supportive of mental health, help to reduce that stigma and so encourage workers to ask for help sooner when they start to struggle (which leads to quicker recovery times). There are a number of free, downloadable resources on the Mental Health First Aid England website that can be used to promote positive mental health, and encourage people to seek support when needed.
2. Embed mental health in your everyday processes. Whenever anybody has been off work for any reason, ask about their mental health at the return to work interview. Also ask about mental health during staff appraisals. Regularly talking about mental health helps to normalise it, and further reduces any stigma. Enquiring about everyone’s mental health helps to ensure that individuals won’t feel singled out if they are having mental health problems.
3. Spot the signs, and don’t be afraid to ask the question. We all react differently when we start to struggle with mental health problems. Some people might become withdrawn, whilst others might become more vocal or even aggressive; deadlines may be missed, or absences increase. The key thing to notice is any change in the individual. This is made more difficult if people are working remotely, but changes in the frequency of emails, tone of emails, appearance & behaviour during online conference calls, or changes in work patterns can still be detected. If you are concerned about someone, ask them about how they’re feeling, whether via a casual chat or in a more formal setting. There’s no one right way to approach the subject, but Mental Health First Aid England’s Take 10 Together toolkit has lots of advice on how to start the conversation.
It must be remembered that supporting mental health should not be seen as a tick-box exercise, and there is no “one size fits all”. These three simple actions are good starting points, but investing in training on how to support mental health in the workplace sends a real message to employees that a company is serious about its commitment. In addition, businesses often already have provisions in place – such as a confidential counselling service via an Employee Assistance Programme – but staff need reminding of what is already available to them. Ultimately, the very first step is to acknowledge that we all have mental health, there is no health without mental health, and that being open about our own mental health leads to a happier, more resilient and (ultimately) more productive workforce.