Employers need to tackle the causes of mental health problems at work

Emma Mamo
Mind’s Emma Mamo on improving employee mental health

Guest blogger Emma Mamo, Head of Workplace Wellbeing at the mental health charity Mind, talks about the importance of prioritising mental health in the workplace and what employers can do to make a difference.

A new systematic review published today in BMC Medicine (part of their Prevention of Mental Disorders article collection) has found that universally delivered workplace interventions can significantly reduce depressive symptoms among staff. This paper also highlights the urgent need for organisations to implement initiatives to improve staff mental health, something Mind has long been calling for as part of our Workplace Wellbeing campaign.

Mental health at work

We all have mental health just as we all have physical health, and considering how much time we spend at work, it’s not surprising it can have a significant impact on our mental health. That’s why it’s important for employers to proactively support the mental health of all their staff, whether they have a diagnosed mental health problem, or not.

According to the Health and Social Care Information Centre, depression and anxiety in combination is the most common mental health problem, affecting 1 in 10 people, whilst depression alone affects over 2 per cent of people – so these are problems which affect even very small businesses.

Someone experiencing depression at work may struggle with seemingly simple tasks including motivation, punctuality and decision-making. Common workplace pressures – such as excessive workload, long hours, or unreasonable targets – can both cause and worsen depression. Staff may not feel comfortable discussing these issues, which is why it’s so important employers create an open, honest environment conducive to talking about wellbeing.

Evidence suggests mental health problems are increasing. Calls to Mind’s confidential support line, Mind Infoline surged by more than 50 per cent in the 2012/13 financial year, compared to the previous year, and most enquiries relate to depression. Prescriptions for antidepressants in England have also soared – with over 50 million dispensed in 2012.

Given stress is now the number one cause of sickness absence in the UK, it’s vital employers act now. Organisations failing to address workplace mental health face higher sickness absence rates, poor staff productivity and low retention rates.

What can employers do?

Depression at work
Mind recommend a 3-pronged approach to support workplace mental wellbeing

This new systematic review indicates that those interventions which had a basis in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) were most successful, but CBT does have a cost attached, both in financial terms and time. There are also lots of small, inexpensive measures employers can take to boost staff wellbeing.

At Mind we recommend a three-pronged approach to supporting workplace mental wellbeing which promotes wellbeing for all staff, tackles the causes of work-related mental health problems and supports staff experiencing mental health problems.

Universal interventions are good because they are available to all staff, but employees experiencing a mental health problem may require tailored support too. If you manage someone with a mental health problem, as with any other employee, regular communication is vital. If you’re unsure how to support them just ask what they need, focus on the person rather than the problem, and avoid making assumptions about how their symptoms might impact their ability to do their job. Many people can manage their condition and perform to a high standard.

All employees can benefit from a Wellness Action Plan. This simple but effective intervention involves working alongside your manager to jointly identify anything which may have a negative impact on your mental health and the steps which can be taken to offset this. An Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) – a confidential 24 hour telephone support line – can benefit staff, particularly those who don’t feel comfortable taking about their wellbeing with colleagues.

Employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for an employee experiencing a mental health problem that is covered by the Equality Act. This often involves changes to culture or practice rather than a costly intervention, such as:

  • Flexible hours or change to start/finish time
  • Changes to break times
  • Change of workspace
  • Changes to role (temporary or permanent)
  • Increased support from managers in prioritising and managing workload
  • Provision of quiet rooms
  • Return-to-work policies such as a phased return

Effectively promoting these initiatives is also important – it’s all very well having support available but it’s no good if staff aren’t aware that it exists or do not feel comfortable accessing it. It’s also advisable for organisations to regularly conduct staff surveys to gauge employee wellbeing and see what is working well, and what needs to be improved.

In order to achieve lasting changes to culture and practice, getting buy in from senior managers is vital. It’s great to see that this latest piece of research provides further evidence to support the use of workplace interventions. And encouragingly, businesses are becoming more proactive in tackling the causes of poor mental health, perhaps because the stigma surrounding mental health problems is decreasing. We’re encouraging all employers to demonstrate their commitment to supporting staff wellbeing by signing the Time to Change organisational pledge.

Mind’s Workplace Wellbeing campaign aims to help people understand and start talking about the costs of neglecting mental wellbeing in the workplace. Mind offers free resources for employers to help improve mental wellbeing and employee engagement. For more information, including tips for employers and staff, please visit www.mind.org.uk/work

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