Mental health in the workplace

Is enough being done to support mental health in the workplace?

7 months ago by Claire Smith

​To coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week, we’re looking at wellbeing in the workplace and what employers are doing, or not doing, to support their staff. Awareness of mental health issues has massively increased in recent years, but is it now being treated with the same importance as physical health?

A recent poll conducted by Mental Health First Aid England (MHFA) and Bauer Media Group revealed that only 14% of workers said they would be comfortable discussing mental health worries at work, compared with 42% who felt able to talk about physical conditions.

After the ‘Thriving at Work’ report commissioned by the Government concluded that the UK faces a significant mental health challenge at work, a survey of employers carried out by the Buck consultancy revealed that only 26% of UK businesses have wellbeing programmes. Internationally, the average is 42% of businesses.

In the same survey, 97% of respondents recognised that wellbeing programmes could help employees to manage stress, anxiety, depression or work-life balance issues, suggesting that there is the need to convert some of this awareness into action.

A Harvard Medical School study, however, questioned the effectiveness of wellbeing programmes, with findings that showed no detectable effects on economic measures such as the number of employee sick days. This study looked at fairly short-term impact whereas it could be argued that employee wellbeing is part of an organisation’s much longer-term strategy and culture.

CIPD research conducted in May 2018 demonstrated that organisations with a wellbeing strategy did have a lower sickness absence, a better culture around health and wellbeing and generally a more inclusive culture. This report stresses the importance of addressing wellness at an organisational level, rather than just creating solutions for individuals.

“If you give employees sushi at lunchtime, or a track to go running, a bit of online stress management, but then send them back into an organisation where the approach is command and control and leaders manage by fault-finding rather than reward and praise, the interventions just will not work.” CIPD president Professor Sir Cary Cooper.

Comparing all of these findings, it seems to depend on the approach to wellness programmes offered by employers, an opinion that is summed up effectively in a 2018 report from The British Safety Council entitled ‘Not Just Free Fruit: Wellbeing at Work’. This report states that while there is clear evidence of a link between wellbeing and productivity, there is a general lack of knowledge of the most effective ways to improve employee wellbeing.

With an increasing number of companies offering paid-for wellbeing programme options but, with no real guidelines available on workplace wellbeing, you can understand why employers are unsure about where to start. As with any initiative, the purpose needs to be clearly defined first, whether it’s reduced sickness absence, improved productivity or better resilience. It’s also key that there is commitment from senior management to engage with and promote wellbeing, otherwise the impact is likely to be limited.

Creating a healthier workplace with open dialogue about stress and wellbeing can only be a positive move and one that doesn’t have to involve a large investment. Does your organisation have an employee wellbeing strategy? We’d love to hear what some of our clients are doing.