How I Cope is an on-going blog series where colleagues from across the sector – and at different stages of their career – share their experiences of self-care and wellbeing.
Mental health and balancing work and life is increasingly recognised as essential to our happiness and ability to make the most of our talents. By encouraging greater awareness and exchanging tips and helpful advice, How I Cope aims to create a space for us to support each other, and the health of our sector in general.
In this extended blog post, Eve Livingston considers how workplaces can become better at meeting the wellbeing and mental health needs of employees.
Developing workplace cultures
It’s a slow process but we are gradually getting better at talking about mental health and wellbeing. With an estimated 1 in 4 people in the UK expected to experience a mental health problem each year, breaking down stigma and ending the taboo around these issues is more important than ever. And whether you’ve experienced a specific problem or not, nobody is immune from their mental health and wellbeing being better or worse at different times - we all have a responsibility to look after ourselves and each other.
While society at large seems to be getting better at this, with celebrities speaking out and media coverage gradually improving, workplaces also have a huge role to play. They are the places where we spend so much of our lives and can sometimes be stressful environments. Having previously spent a portion of my working life as an Equalities officer in a large public sector organisation, I’ve learned some lessons about how workplaces can best support their staff. Here are some of my main takeaways:
The business case
The most important reason to care about the mental health and wellbeing of staff is simple compassion and kindness. But there are also important business reasons to be a compassionate employer, and these are worth knowing, as they can sometimes be the thing that convinces senior management and organisational leaders to take these issues seriously.
It’s as simple as this: employees with good mental health do better work. People who are happy and comfortable and who receive the support they need are more likely to be productive and engaged members of staff, and to stick around for longer. For this reason, managers will always see a return on investment in health and wellbeing initiatives through the happiness and contributions of their staff. It’s worth keeping that argument up your sleeve if you ever face resistance to implementing new ideas!
It’s everybody’s problem
Responsibility for mental health and wellbeing, and for equality and diversity more widely, should be part of everyone’s role in an organisation. Often, workplaces will recruit one individual or a team with a remit for equality, health or inclusion, or it will be tacked on to an existing member of staff’s role, often as a voluntary contribution.
It can be valuable to have a named person coordinating and tracking efforts, but it’s important that everybody plays their part and that a culture doesn’t develop where these issues are seen as ‘not my job’. Make sure all staff come on this journey with you and that everyone sees how these issues fit into their own job descriptions and responsibilities.
Policies and procedures
Being a mentally healthy workplace is first and foremost about culture, but it’s also important that policies line up with the environment you’re trying to create. Take some time to put together HR policies that are compassionate and informed about mental health and wellbeing, and ensure that people with experience of these issues are involved in the development of that policy.
There are also plenty of guidelines and charters of varying levels of formality that workplaces can sign up to, both as a symbol that they care and as a way of taking some good practical steps. Time to Change have an ‘employer’s pledge’ for instance, while the government have also produced ‘Thriving at Work standards.'
Flexible working is increasingly popular at workplaces of all shapes and sizes, and the mental health and wellbeing of staff is just another good reason to adopt it. Whatever this looks like - compressed hours, a shorter working week, the ability to work remotely - it can help staff to plan work around life and not the other way round. Not only is this likely to remove some stressors and create a better work-life balance, but it also means that those who are already struggling can take their time to attend appointments or to set themselves up for the day - whatever might be needed.
Staff networks can be a really valuable tool for all different equality groups, giving people a voice to talk about difficult issues of equality and diversity and ensuring that people affected by any given issue are also consulted on how to respond. A staff mental health and wellbeing group can work as well as any women’s, BME or LGBT+ network, as long as it’s given time and resource.
Staff networks should be allowed to meet during work time and ideally they should be given full autonomy and a small amount of resource to run campaigns or projects important to them. They should also be listened to and consulted on relevant issues, and be an important part of the life of the whole organisation, alongside staff teams, unions and other stakeholders. If you’re a manager, you should make clear that there is room for groups like this in your organisation. If you’re an employee, you should ask management for support to start one!
Training and awareness
Partnering with expert organisations for training and awareness-raising is another very valuable step that workplaces can take. Many mental health charities and organisations will run bespoke training on a variety of different issues, from talking openly about mental health and wellbeing through to supporting staff members who are struggling, and even accredited courses like the Mental Health First Aid programme. These organisations can also provide printed and other materials that can be displayed in workspaces, both to signal to staff that the organisation takes these issues seriously and to provide practical help and signposting.
In particular, anyone with line management experience should be encouraged or compelled to take part in training, as they are often the first contact for a staff member who may want to discuss their mental health or wellbeing. It is vital that they are able to respond professionally, compassionately and constructively. Senior staff should also be encouraged to discuss their feelings openly with staff teams: creating a culture where everyone feels able to raise these issues is vital, but almost impossible without demonstration by leadership.
Most larger organisations will give employees access to confidential counselling or sometimes to specific health services, but it’s worth thinking carefully - and creatively - about the perks and benefits your workplace offers and how they can improve mental health and wellbeing. Initiatives like free fruit and vegetables can both improve the health of staff and make them feel valued and appreciated, while encouraging walking and cycling, for instance, has been proven to improve mental wellbeing.
If you have links with theatres or cinemas, why not offer staff discounts or exclusives - a good work-life balance is also vital for maintaining good mental health. Perks needn’t be expensive or excessive but they can be an often-overlooked way to contribute directly to the health and wellbeing of staff, and to illustrate that they are valued and supported, something that will bolster wellbeing in the long term.
Equality and diversity agenda
Mental health and wellbeing should also just be one part of a wider workplace priority around equality and diversity. It’s worth remembering that other E&D issues can intersect with mental health and wellbeing: for instance, women suffer higher levels of workplace stress than men and LGBT+ people suffer higher levels of anxiety and depression than their counterparts.
It’s important that all of these issues are taken seriously and worked on in conjunction with each other, rather than being given varying levels of focus at different times. Responsibility for these issues can and should be built into every job description and the workplace should work hard to create a culture where these things are seen as everybody’s business.
Be prepared to think differently
Perhaps most importantly of all, workplaces can sometimes fall into the habit of doing things a certain way just because that’s how they’ve always been done. Workplaces shouldn’t be scared of trying out different approaches or structures, especially in pursuit of a mentally healthy and happy workplace.
Who’s to say that intimidating one-to-one interviews are always the best way to assess someone’s suitability for a job, or that a long and impersonal form after a mental health absence is really necessary? Is it important for someone to be at their desk at 9am on the dot every day to fulfil their role, or is that just the way the workplace has traditionally been structured? The organisations which take mental health and wellbeing most seriously and who deal with it best are often those who are willing to be creative and take risks.
All in all, there are lots of steps that workplaces can take to ensure the health and wellbeing of the people who work there, so nobody needs to feel powerless or alone. Managers should prioritise implementing training and employee benefits or resourcing a staff network, while employees should make a good business case for mental health initiatives and things like flexible working.
Most importantly, there’s no one size fits all solution. It’s not an overnight transformation - issues of mental health and wellbeing are complex and difficult, so the solutions are many and will require lots of trying and testing, and time to embed. The most important thing is that a good workplace culture is developed. This can sometimes hard to define, but in this case generally means a workplace where colleagues feel that they can be themselves and are happy to spend a large proportion of their time in. One that fits with the rest of their life and not the other way round.
That’s a vision to keep at the forefront of your mind as you do this kind of work, because it’s surely in everyone’s best interests. We all have lives, brains, health and wellbeing; it’s the responsibility of workplaces to make sure that each of those things can thrive.
If you are interested in contributing to the How I Cope series, please contact us. We welcome anonymous submissions, as well as named.