ArticleOctober 8, 2021by included

Mental health in the workplace

World Mental Health Day is an international day for global mental health education, awareness, and advocacy against social stigma. Stress has increased since the start of the pandemic, while job insecurity and isolated remote work have provided additional challenges for mental health in the workplace.

Ahead of World Mental Health Day, members of the Included team, Luke Robinson and Plamena Solakova, share their thoughts on how organisations can best support employee mental health.

How should we acknowledge mental health and wellbeing issues in the workplace?

Luke Robinson: I think the key is communication and education. By educating all employees on mental health (e.g. key definitions – what does ‘depression’ actually mean? How does ‘anxiety’ present?), you will begin to create a space where colleagues can explore and discuss the subject safely. You can go further with educating your middle management and leadership populations, exploring the common signs and symptoms, their accountability for their teams, and the processes and procedures that are in place. Beyond the education piece, that safe space can be built on via visible communications and signposting on an ongoing basis – not just during Mental Health Awareness Week or World Mental Health Day – with a consistent narrative that the organisation cares about its employees’ mental wellbeing, and that the topic is baked in to its ‘business as usual’ activity.

Plamena Solakova: Employers should ensure employees’ physical comfort as it has a downstream effect on their physical and mental health. Healthy office snacks being available in the office, or sent to home working colleagues, can help support overall wellbeing and make a clear commitment from the organisation. Incentivising people to show gratitude and praise for colleagues, such as through feedback Fridays or using tools such as Slack and Teams to share thanks and achievements, can create a supportive environment. Many companies now also offer unlimited annual leave or Balance days.

How can inequalities affect mental health in the workplace, and what should employers be doing?

LR: If you break ‘inequalities’ down into three areas, equality, diversity, and inclusion, you can clearly see their impact on mental health in the workplace. If equality is about equal status/rights/opportunities, the absence of this in the workplace can clearly lead to disillusionment and unhappiness. If an employee feels they are consistently overlooked for promotion, for example, they will inevitably lose motivation.

Diversity is a reality in society and represents difference, but if it is lacking in an organisation, under-represented groups or individuals (whether by gender, ethnicity, disability, education, personality etc) can feel isolated. organisations can combat this by ensuring that their recruitment and retention systems are analysed and subsequently debiased.

Inclusion is perhaps the most critical and unifies all of the previous – without inclusion diversity cannot thrive. Inclusion is about employees feeling that they can bring their true selves to work with no impact on psychological or professional safety. It means no ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups, and an organisational culture that embraces difference and offers reward based on merit. Clearly then, a lack of inclusion will severely impact the mental wellbeing of employees, driving churn, sickness absence, and lower productivity. Ensuring systems are debiased, leaders educated, and D&I specifically included in strategy will all assist organisations in creating a healthy environment in which mental wellbeing can flourish.

PS: It’s important that inclusive language is used in our organisations and that our teams understand why this is important. This is relevant both in how we speak to each other and how our products and services are described and designed, as highlighted in our work with Cloudflare.

Recent analysis of our Inclusion Diagnostic data shows that people attribute their experiences at work more to team dynamics than to company culture. This implies that to have a bigger impact, training middle managers is a crucial and high priority element that must be addressed to increase inclusion felt by employees. These team dynamics are central to how people feel at work, and ensuring these are environments are inclusive will enable employers to better support mental health and reduce stress driven by exclusion and inequalities.

What is the role of employers in employees’ mental health and wellbeing?

LR: Linked to previous points, there is a definite (and legal) responsibility on employers to help their employees with their mental health and wellbeing. As well as generally ensuring that the culture is an inclusive one in which employees can achieve good mental health, any work-related mental wellbeing issues that present must be assessed and risks to all staff measured. Where risks are identified, steps must then be taken to remove or reduce them as far as possible.

PS: Employees must ensure psychological safety, including training and awareness for all members. You can see how this works in practice in our case study with WiG and AstraZeneca. It’s also important that leaders in the organisation demonstrate empathy, be willing to listen, and to show vulnerability. This will have a downstream effect on the rest of the organisation and will encourage a better company culture where people can speak up about mental health. Brené Brown‘s work stands out to me here, she says: ‘a leader who can meet vulnerability with empathy, who can feel compassion for themselves and for others in the wake of setbacks and mistakes, will be able to build connections and improve their working relationships at the most difficult moments and turn crises into learning experiences.’

What wellbeing practices should employers be carrying out?

LR: There are many examples of organisational wellbeing practices, from the relatively simple through to the more innovative. The latter tend to be specific to an organisation or industry and it is worth saying that no one solution will work for all environments.

From a basic point of view, having structure to working hours with protected breaks and clear core hours (e.g. no emails sent outside of these times) can be a simple but effective benefit. Making sure the working environment is safe, comfortable and appealing (whether in the office or at home) is another simple practice. Other suggestions could include:

  • Social events
  • Healthy challenges (e.g. step counting)
  • Mentoring and buddy schemes
  • Carving out recurring time in diaries for collaboration or senior leader access
  • Mental wellbeing resources
  • Mediums for reporting and learning from mistakes
  • Volunteer day allowances
  • Personal training budgets

PS: As companies return to offices, they should ensure good lighting as well as COVID-secure offices to reduce the risk of becoming physically ill and minimise the anxiety of staff as well. It can also be valuable to encourage walking meetings so people move around during the day, and other elements of exercise such as gym memberships, fitness challenges or classes at work, and standing desks. With each of these options, it’s important to offer solutions that also work for those with disabilities or those who cannot or don’t wish to go to the gym, for example. There should not be a one-size-fits-all approach. 19% of the UK workforce is disabled, and this should be reflected in employee benefits package consideration.

Any practical guidance specifically for a hybrid/remote environment?

LR: The key here will be ensuring that employees are included regardless of their working structure. It is doubly important for remote employees to have protected and regular access to their colleagues and manager, including socially and professionally. Designing your social calendar to work for remote and office-based employees is important. It is equally key to ensure that remote colleagues are not unfairly overlooked for opportunities, contributions in meetings, project allocation etc. Review communications to check that no bias exists towards in person or remote, and educate managers/leaders on creating inclusive team environments that account for multiple working structures.

PS: With hybrid working, if possible there should be no mandates on how many days or which days a week to be in the office. Empower your employees to decide, at least on a team level rather than company-wide. Show trust in your people. Related to my earlier point about physical comfort for employees, it’s important that organisations ensure their employees’ home working environments are suitable. This may include sending them an office chair or a desktop screen to ensure health and safety is protected during sustained working from home.

Our Inclusion Diagnostic research shows that since the onset of the pandemic, psychological safety has gone up. This may be due to increased attention to work-life balance and mental health with the rise of home working. Pay transparency, however, has decreased and communication with leaders has worsened. This is likely driven by decreased contact. These are important elements to address to improve mental health in the workplace as we move out of crisis and build a sustainable new way of working.

World Mental Health Day is run by the World Health organisation. Find out more about the Day here, and join the conversation over on Twitter and LinkedIn.