How businesses can tackle mental health at work

Posted Jul 6, 2017 by Tim Sandle
Mental health issues in the workplace create problems for individual worker and they impact on the business in terms of productivity loss. As a result many businesses are investing in new ways of supporting employees.
A cat walks across the desk at an IT office in Tokyo  where felines help alleviate stress and anxiet...
A cat walks across the desk at an IT office in Tokyo, where felines help alleviate stress and anxiety
Many modern, forward-thinking businesses take mental health matters seriously — by investing in healthy workspaces and working to support employees who are going through mental health issues. For this to happen policies need to be in place and senior managers need to be trained in supporting mental health issues, as well as being empathetic with those affected.
Cultural shift
However, simply putting managers on training courses is not sufficient unless there is a fundamental shift in approach, making concern the mental health of employees a part of organizational culture. One sign that the culture is not mature is where an employee, struggling with a mental health issue, keeps the matter quiet for fear of reprisals from the employer. It's a concern in some workplaces, the wellbeing charity The Shaw Foundation notes, where some workers feel that if they told their boss they were stressed at work, they feel that their ability to do the job would be questioned.
File Photo: The Red Balloon office - an example of an open plan  Bullpen -style office
File Photo: The Red Balloon office - an example of an open plan 'Bullpen'-style office
Veronica Therese (CC BY-SA 3.0)
This type of culture, whether real or perceived by the employee, is ultimately bad for business. Writing about this for the Mental Heath Foundation, health expert Jenny Edwards says that the organization needs to change its culture. She writes: "the need for businesses to create a culture in which mental health is valued: where disclosure is encouraged, support is present, and everyone feels that their work and the benefits they receive contribute to their wellbeing." Important as awareness is, overcoming stigma and raising awareness should not be an end but a means; instead it needs to be where organisations start.
Business solutions for good mental health
To address issues of workplace culture, the British Health and Safety Executive offers the following recommendations for a supportive employee culture:
Review demands on employees, including work patterns, workloads and work environment.
Look at control. especially the extent of the worker’s job control.
Provide support to an employee, by the organisation, management and colleagues.
Make sure employees fully understand their role and avoid role-conflict.
Where change is required, ensure change management systems are in place with effective communication of organisational change.
Always avoid conflict and unacceptable behavior in the workplace.
Promote positive working.
An office worker with a cluttered desk
Inside the hazards of overwork
Photo by alancleaver_2000
These themes are picked up in a new review by The Shaw Foundation, which says that businesses should normalize mental health. The argument made here is that if mental health is discussed on a level playing field then employees are going to feel more comfortable discussing any problems they have when they arise.
Management training
As part of fostering culture change, the training of managers and co-workers is important. This includes looking for tell-tale signs of mental health issues, such as looking for changes in people’s behavior or mood or how they interact with colleagues. According to Personnel Today, most mental health issues within the workplace are stress related. Common causes of workplace stress are:
Workload pressures.
Interpersonal relationships, such as bullying, harassment and difficulty with superiors,
Work changes, including changes of responsibilities or a reduction of resources.
Case studies of 'the good employer'
Businesses can put in place relatively small changes that pay big dividends. The mental health charity Mind discusses several case studies in its review of mental health at work. These amply illustrate how tiny changes can assist employees. One example is with an employee called Sita (not her real name). Sita was experiencing anxiety and needed the reassurance of her boss regularly acknowledging her work, saying ‘thank you’ and greeting her in the morning. Her manager picked up on this and regular, positive feedback helped Sita to function as a productive employee.
Life at Google
File photo: An employee on her computer at Google's head office.
Photo courtesy Google
In a second example, a worker called Simon is allowed to take his lunch break in three 20-minute slots over the day to help manage his mental health and take time out when he’s feeling under pressure. A third case is with a woman called Alison who works as a receptionist. Alison experienced a family bereavement and was struggling with phone calls from the public which can be challenging and emotional. A temporary adjustment, made by her employer, was put in place so another team member could field her calls for a period until she felt able to deal with the general public again.
Using consultancy services
Companies, especially smaller organizations may need to hire specialized services to help to manage the mental health of employees. A key area is with assessing an employee, who has been absent due to a mental health issue, prior to their return to the workplace. This is best addressed, according to Keith T Palmer and colleagues in their book Fitness for Work: The Medical Aspects, through a consultation between the employee and the employee's manager. Such assessments can assess the extent that the job adversely affected the employee's health and whether it will continue to do so unless changes are enacted. In addition, consultancy services can provide impartial advice to management regarding the causes for sickness absence and suggest modifications in order to support a successful return to work.
For employers, addressing issues of workplace culture and drawing on consultancy services produces rewards in terms of higher levels of staff productivity, morale and retention.