Employer’s responsibility for mental health at work

I recently read yet another excellent post from the fabulous folks over at Userlike.  Whilst they are often focused on the customer, this time they focused on the team serving the customer.  You can read their post here, but in essence, it’s some sound advice on avoiding burn out within your customer facing teams. And whilst I have talked about my own mental health, how we can be more open about it, and  how we can better manage our stress at work, I thought this was a good time to discuss the topic further.  More specifically, to look at the employer responsibility when it comes to their peoples’ mental health.

Unlike physical health, mental health is still pretty taboo in most societies around the world.  We still tend to talk in hushed voices when sharing mental health “bad news”, exchanging looks of pity or shame.  Fortunately, there are businesses leading change, talking openly about good and bad mental health, putting in place support structures, mental health first aiders, training and investment to address the challenge of mental health illness in the workplace.  Why? Because it’s costing businesses a lot of money – stress, anxiety and depression are rapidly moving to the top of the list of reasons for absenteeism.  When productivity falls, so do profits, so wise businesses are taking action to address this (in much the same way that industrial businesses improved health and safety to reduce workforce death and injury in the previous century.)  Whilst articles like the ones I’ve mentioned earlier share some solutions on the approach, there is still much work to be done to convince many employers that it pays to care about good mental health in their workplace.

There’s plenty of evidence and information on the harmful effects of ignoring poor mental health or indeed, misunderstanding the stresses of modern life, so what does an employer “own” in terms of not only reducing the pressures, but supporting the treatment and recovery?  Balancing the fine line between being too hands-off or aloof with the risk of crossing a line into an employee’s personal space is a real challenge. This is especially the case for the many businesses where senior teams are male dominated, and invariably less comfortable to discuss these topics.  Whether large or small, here’s a few questions you might want to answer when considering whether your business has struck the right balance.

  1. Would you feel comfortable following your own internal process to share mental health concerns to colleagues at work?
  2. Are there any role models or points of reference to show that the business has successfully supported colleagues faced by mental health illness?
  3. What metrics let you see whether you have an issue and how you’re dealing with it?
  4. When did you last hear colleagues openly talk about mental health in a positive way?
  5. Read a recent company-wide communication – does it feel like the sort of place that will support you if you share concerns about your mental health?

Distracted employees cannot possibly deliver their best, be that due to home or work worries.  A perception of too much work, too little support, job insecurity, office politics, rumour mills and unexpected change increase stress and anxiety, which exacerbate any existing mental health illnesses.  Whilst these behaviours might typically be associated with traditional corporates and enterprises, the rapid change experienced in newer businesses and start-ups, in particular the race to be the next unicorn, can often counteract any initiatives in place to support good mental health.

So from an employer’s perspective, here are some core responsibilities with regards mental health of your workforce (and this equally applies to team managers and line managers):

  1. Ensure you have in place a way for people to raise the alarm about their (or a colleague’s) mental health
  2. Factor in mental health illness impact to your productivity model (as you would with physical sickness, holiday / vacation, etc)
  3. Use (internal or external) role models and real stories to show that your business will support colleagues through mental health illness
  4. Whilst you cant control negative mental health factors outside work, you can influence them within the workplace, so find a way to measure factors that increase stress, anxiety and depression amongst your people
  5. Regularly reinforce the message that it’s OK to not always feel OK

If you take your responsibility seriously, you should be able, over time, to measure the positive effect through increased productivity.  If your people are quicker to accept mental health illness and seek treatment or ask for help, the time to recovery is reduced, and your star performers will be back on top form again in a shorter timeframe.  It’s not just about giving people space to recover, it’s finding ways to help them feel nurtured and accepted through a difficult period. You and your management team may need to step outside your comfort zone, but the positive cultural shift that will result means it’s absolutely worth it.


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