The Diversity Series: Let’s talk (and not whisper) about mental health...

Mental health and wellbeing at work is an important strand of diversity, but one that does not always receive as much focus as other areas.

Despite mental health being an issue that affects almost everyone, whether personally or professionally, at some point in their lives, it is an issue which is usually handled badly in the workplace.

Whether stigma or poor workplace culture is to blame, too often employees feel uncomfortable discussing mental health at work and do not know how to hold respectful and mature conversations with colleagues they know or suspect are suffering from poor mental health. When it is discussed between colleagues, it is often done so disrespectfully, in secret, or in an insensitive manner behind closed doors.

Whilst it can be a difficult topic for employers to approach, there are a number of practical steps employers can take to help reduce stigma, improve workplace culture and raise awareness about positive mental health and wellbeing at work.

  • Policies: Ideally, employers will have mental health and wellbeing policies in place which detail the support available for employees to improve wellbeing and provide guidance on how to manage the effects of stress in the workplace.
  • Benefits: Employers should also consider offering benefits and support packages for employees to take ownership of their own physical and mental health. These might include employee assistance programmes, health assessments or counselling support. Some employers also offer free subscriptions to mindfulness initiatives and apps, whereas others offer ‘personal days’ or time out for hobbies and wellbeing activities.
  • Training: Employees and managers should be trained to recognise and respond to signs of poor mental health and wellbeing at work, including signs of workplace stress. Regular training and awareness raising can be embedded in induction and regular staff training programmes.
  • Regular one-to-ones: Line managers should be encouraged to speak regularly with their teams about how they are doing and explore what might be impacting on their mental wellbeing.
  • Mental health guardians: Mental health guardians, who support their colleagues on issues relating to mental health and wellbeing at work, are becoming increasingly popular. Earlier this month, The Guardian published its findings from a recent study, reporting that more than half of FTSE100 companies have appointed ‘mental health first aiders’ in the workplace.

    Employers should ensure that individuals selected as guardians, or aiders, have the right skill-set and training for the role. A one-off training course is unlikely to be sufficient and guardians will also need support and guidance themselves to ensure their own wellbeing.
  • Ongoing awareness raising: Employers should avoid mental health initiatives being seen as a tick box exercise. To truly create a culture across the organisation where the employer genuinely cares about employee wellbeing requires regular and ongoing awareness raising. Employers can make the most of key dates in the mental health calendar as opportunities to raise awareness, such as World Mental Health Day, coming up on 11 October 2019. 

There are many practical ways for employers to raise awareness around mental health and wellbeing at work. Whilst not every initiative will be suitable for each employer, it is important for employers to consider what initiative works best for their workforce and continually review and evolve their working practices.

While there is no legal definition of ‘mental health’ or a separate protected characteristic under the Equality Act, employees may bring a number of claims against their employer relating to mental health and their treatment in the workplace, including: disability discrimination, harassment or victimisation; unfair dismissal; breach of contract; or personal injury.

In addition to managing the legal risk, wellbeing at work impacts an organisation’s culture, affecting productivity, performance, and impacting absence rates and staff retention. It is in the interests of both employers and employees to have good mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.