Meaningful measures for workplace mental health

October 10, 2018

Tabby Farrar

Wellness benefits are fast becoming as much a part of the modern workplace as memory foam mouse mats and free hot drinks. Businesses are beginning to recognise responsibility for the health, wellbeing and happiness of their employees, and rightly so – but are the measures being employed the right ones?

Simple gestures such as providing healthy food and access to fitness club memberships – staff benefits designed to increase overall wellbeing and morale – can only be a positive measure. However, as society is becoming more aware and embraces workplace wellness, it’s important to ensure that the most meaningful support measures aren’t overlooked.

Alongside initiatives such as yoga and meditation sessions, team walks and discount fitness packages, how many employers are helping their staff connect with professional mental health support when they need it? While every workplace is legally required to have designated first aid provision, how many employers have chosen to include mental health support in this provision too?

Workplace mental health: the facts

The number of staff absences due to mental ill-health is on the rise, with many businesses reporting that both the number of mental health-related absences by staff and the length of those absences has increased in the last three years.

In CIPD’s latest Wellbeing at Work survey, mental health was cited by employers as the biggest cause of long-term absence in the workforce. 86% of respondents also said that they’d observed presenteeism in their organisation – meaning that staff were continuing to show up to work even when clearly unwell and unable to work to the best of their ability.

Stress-related absence and reported mental health issues have both increased in the last 12 months, and 51% of respondents said that their company was working to improve awareness of mental health issues throughout the workforce. In spite of this, only 6% of organisations surveyed had a dedicated mental health policy to identify, manage and support those issues.

With leaders identifying mental health concerns as a growing issue in a range of workforces, and working to raise awareness of the types of issues people may face, why are so few organisations putting meaningful support in place?

Mental Health First Aid

One measure that is starting to command more attention is Mental Health First Aid. Just as you might send a staff member on a First Aid course to learn CPR, or to a fire safety course so that they are better equipped for a role as designated fire warden, Mental Health First Aid courses are short training programmes which can be organised in-house or out of office.

Rather than expecting those who are struggling to simply reach out, assuming that they will feel confident and empowered enough to do so, a Mental Health First Aider can be trained to recognise the warning signs and symptoms of certain mental ill-health issues.

As well as encouraging conversations about mental health and helping to step away from the idea that it is a taboo subject, providing training in this area means that you have a team member who can offer much-needed support and assistance to colleagues who need it. It is often more appropriate if the individual or individuals being trained have good interpersonal skills, and that they are open to becoming mental health champions within your organisation

While it is not the same as having a fully qualified counsellor on call, trained Mental Health First Aiders can signpost anyone who needs a higher level of assistance to the most relevant external services.

Counselling services can help prevent tragedy

Whether as part of an Employee Assistance Programme or as a standalone service, connecting staff with qualified counselling services is an invaluable way to take care of their health. As well as mitigating the risk of mental health-related absence, you are also reducing the likelihood that problems will escalate and become unmanageable, leading to far more serious concerns.

Suicide remains the leading cause of death among men under 50 in the United Kingdom, as well as being the leading cause of death for anyone aged five to 34. These are sobering statistics, and worth considering when decisions are made about which measures to include and which to leave out from employee wellbeing programmes and assistance arrangements.

Enabling staff to access recognised counselling services easily and confidentially could be a life-saving move. As The Guardian’s Emily Reynolds commented recently, “If you’re so depressed you’re finding it hard to go to work, you don’t need a smoothie or a free flat white: you need structured support from mental health professionals and paid time off.”

The other stuff is good – but remember that mental health matters

Employers should not be discouraged from offering benefits like discounted gym memberships and healthy snacks to their teams, to try and boost morale and encourage healthier living. But if access to professional support is overlooked, even the most well-intentioned wellbeing benefits could fall seriously short of a meaningful level.

“While progress has undoubtedly been made in the UK recently, there is still a huge amount of work to be done on recognising wellbeing and mental health issues within the workplace and providing appropriate and positive support.” Says the British Safety Council’s Policy Director Dave Parr. “Two thirds of people in the UK will experience a mental health problem during their lifetime, and yet it still isn’t commonplace for employers to support people via trained assistance and access to relevant services. This situation must change.”

About the author

Tabby Farrar is a professional researcher and copywriter, specialising in content around small business advice and mental health. As well as writing for a number of household brand names, she also runs the wellbeing and lifestyle blog Just Can’t Settle.

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