7 Steps to Build a Mentally Healthy Workplace

FRANCIS KEATING
Health and Safety Consultant at EazySAFE
Of course, the workplace is not solely responsible for creating such high levels of mental ill health but the workplace can be a perfect breeding ground for triggers, which instigate or compound mental health difficulties. At a human level, this is of course unfortunate, but the business cost to employers faced with this level of ill health is staggering. Mental ill health causes absenteeism, high rates of staff turnover and presenteeism, an American conceived concept, which basically means coming into work while sick and not performing to one’s capabilities. It has been estimated that mental ill health is costing approximately 2% of GDP or about 3 billion euro per year to Irish business. However, employers who are positive and proactive in promotion of mental health can reduce absenteeism and increase their productivity.
Yoga Session
“Never give up on someone with a mental illness. When ‘I’ is replaced by ‘We’, illness becomes wellness.”
SHANNON L. ALDER
It should also be remembered that employers have responsibilities under various legislation such as the Employment Equality Acts 1998 to 2011, and the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005. Employers are duty bound by law to protect their employees and to provide a safe place of work in terms of both physical hazards and hazards which may cause mental ill health. Employers must also be cognizant that job seekers and employees cannot be discriminated against because of mental health issues in areas such as sick leave, pay, promotion and recruitment.

So what is mental health?

There are as many definitions of mental health as there are mental health disorders. Fundamentally, mental health is the emotional resilience which allows us to enjoy life, create friendships, and be productive at our jobs. This emotional resilience also allows us to survive the disappointments and setbacks in life such as bereavements, family problems and other stressful situations. Protecting our mental health is as important as protecting our physical health. It is well known today that we can assist in protecting our emotional resilience by being involved in some sort of exercise or social activity, but as we have discussed earlier, roughly one in six of us are suffering from mental ill health and it should be noted that mental ill health can occur in any individual regardless of age, sex, race or social class.

Mental ill health can manifest itself in a wide range of conditions and illnesses. Stress, anxiety and depression are the most common forms of clinically diagnosed mental health disorders, the majority of which can be treated with social supports that we will discuss later. In some cases, these common forms of mental ill health will require medical intervention, where a GP may refer more severe cases to a psychiatrist or psychologist. A small percentage of people, roughly 1 percent, will suffer from more severe forms of mental ill health such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. These conditions can be extremely debilitating and may require complex medical support plans.
It must be emphasized that in the vast majority of cases, people can lead a productive and meaningful life if the right supports are in place. The workplace can play a vital role in helping people to negotiate their way through these difficulties. Unfortunately many barriers exist which can exacerbate an otherwise fixable situation. One of the main problems associated with mental health is the stigma attached to these health disorders. In a recent survey carried out by an umbrella group of mental health organisations, 50 percent of people said that they would not disclose to anyone if they suffered from mental ill health. The fear of early disclosure due to the stigma attached to mental ill health will negatively impact on early diagnosis and treatment.
The culture of a business may reflect the widespread stigma attached to mental ill health and may deter people from seeking help in the workplace at an early stage thus building a far bigger problem down the road through absenteeism, presenteesim or where someone just simply walks out of the job. Employers should note that a recent research study has shown that people with mental health issues were more productive and took fewer sick days when the right supports were afforded to them in the workplace. It was found that these employees were simply grateful and that they wanted in return to demonstrate their loyalty and appreciation to their employers.

Ok, we know that mental ill health is a lot more common than we thought, and that on a personal level it causes unhappiness and misery. We know that it costs business big time through absenteeism, high turnover of staff and presenteeism. We also know that the workplace can be both the problem and solution to this issue. How do you as an employer or manager help ensure that your employees have good mental health? The answer may lie in seven steps developed and proposed by the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Mental Health. The forum recognized that mental ill health was not only causing anguish, pain and sometimes death to workers but that it was also taking a toll on all types of business, small, medium and large. A panel of experts from across the world of academia, business and mental health was established and together they drafted these 7 steps.

Step One: Be aware of the workplace environment and how it can be adapted.

Knowledge is power. Understand the benefits of a mentally healthy work environment. Happier workforce equals higher motivation, creativity and productivity. Conversely understand the risk factors that can lead to mental ill health such as excessive workloads, time pressure and lack of engagement and non-inclusion in decision-making. Measures to reduce these risk factors include, promotion of health and safety, risk assessment and identification of situations which could lead to stress and illness, inclusion in decision making, greater autonomy, supporting employees in improving work-life balance, supporting employee career development and recognition of good work. Maybe the most important factor in reducing the risk of mental ill health is letting your employees know that help is there and that discrimination or ridicule will not be tolerated in any form.

Get yourself informed on the landscape of mental illness. Stress is not the same as anxiety but symptoms can be similar. Depression can range from a debilitating condition that renders the sufferer unfit for work or even suicidal to a mild depression which may cause some loss of productivity or loss of cheer. The stigma associated with mental illness in all probability stems from ignorance and as we have seen, the vast majority of people who have mental ill health can be productive and valued employees if the right supports are in place.
Understand how to intervene to create a healthy workplace. This should take a three-pronged approach. Firstly, protect mental health by reducing the risk factors associated with mental ill health such as excessive workloads. Secondly, promote mental health by developing the positive aspects of the job, try and make work meaningful. Lastly, address mental health issues among your staff; provide training to your staff to inform them of mental health and how to recognize potential problems with themselves and others. Let your staff know that there is help available and how to access that help if needed. At EazySAFE, we offer an online training course in the area of stress management.

Step 2: Learn from the motivations of organisational leaders and employees who’ve taken action

Why should you invest your time and resources into protecting the mental health of your employees? It’s not your problem if Mary at reception is a bit anxious or Gerry in accounts is stressed out. Well actually it is your problem, your employees are suffering and at a human level you should support them. Their work is also suffering and this is costing you. If either Mary or Gerry had physical ailments caused by work, you would notice them limping or wincing with pain, and you as a good boss or manager would encourage them to get treatment and assist them in making a full recovery.

It should be no different with mental health issues. And remember, you owe a legal duty of care to your employees with regard to their mental health. Companies who have taken action cite various reasons for implementing wellbeing initiatives and these include protecting the health and wellbeing of employees, doing the “right thing”, improving employee engagement and lastly, managing costs and liabilities.

Remember Gerry and Mary, if your company is proactive in protecting and promoting mental health, their issues could have been identified and resolved at a very early stage, as opposed to high back end costs arising from absenteeism, presenteeism, treatment and perhaps litigation.

Step 3: Don’t reinvent wheels, be aware of other companies who have taken action

There are numerous examples of companies who have taken action with regard to improving and protecting the mental health of their employees. Learn from them, learn why they decided to take action, how they took action, how they monitor their actions and what they have gained from the process. One example which highlights the benefits of taking action is EDF, a leading UK energy provider. A workplace audit showed that the company was losing 1.8 million per year because of employee mental ill health. The company, as part of a programme to promote wellbeing, provided training to 1000 managers to recognize early signs of psychological issues. This measure along with others allowed for a drastic improvement in productivity and lessened absenteeism rates, which ultimately saved the company money. Job satisfaction was surveyed amongst employees and satisfaction rates markedly improved. Here at EazySAFE, we offer an online stress management training course aimed specifically at managers.

Step 4: Understand the opportunities and needs of you and your colleagues

Your company is unique, you may produce the same kind of product or offer a similar service as your rival, but your company, people and culture are unique. You will therefore need to adopt unique policies and procedures that deal specifically with your company.

Step 5: Take practical steps to help your organization

When setting out on this initiative, you can avail of numerous tools which will help assist in developing your policies and procedures. Educational materials can be sourced either digitally or in hard copy formats from organizations such as ‘See Change’ and ‘Aware’. Training programmes in the area of mental health can be availed of such as stress in the workplace online courses. Diagnostic tools, which allow for diagnosis and monitoring can be downloaded and used. These diagnostic tools do not replace the need for professional medical input but serve as a tool to assist in gauging basic general health of employees.

Step 6: Find out where to go if you or a colleague needs help

Seeking help when you are confronted with a mental health issue can be extremely challenging. However, if your company has implemented policies and procedures that seek to improve the mental wellbeing of your employees, there should be a clear pathway for people to engage with and disclose difficulties at an early stage. You as an employer or manager are not expected to be expert in treating mental illness and in some cases referral may be necessary. The most positive outcome is for an employee to resolve their difficulties and to remain at work. This can be achieved by early intervention, and again, training and education are essential to identifying any early problems and resolving them. Employers and managers should have the skills to work in a sensitive and confidential manner with people after disclosure of mental health issues.

In some cases, employees will need some time away to recover and to recharge their batteries. In these situations it is vital that contact and support is maintained to allow for a successful return to work. Again, training and education are fundamental in supporting colleagues who may need a little time out.

Step 7: Get Started!!!

Simple, get started. Good mental health allows people to fulfil their true potential and that is not only good for employees but it is also good for your bottom line. Common sense would dictate that happy employees make for happy business. Nobody is suggesting that workplaces should become holiday camps, after all a certain amount of stress is normal and productive. But where mental health impacts on people’s ability to perform, you not only have a moral and legal obligation to intervene, you have a business obligation to make changes.

Remember that attitudes towards improving mental health in the workplace must come from top down. It is no longer acceptable to adopt the stiff upper lip and expect people to struggle through mental health difficulties. The barriers that prevent positive outcomes such as stigma and ignorance must be broken down. There must be buy in from senior management through to middle management and right on down the chain of command of your company. Line managers have a key role to play in improving mental health as they are the eyes and ears of any company, and if trained correctly, they will be able to identify mental health difficulties at an early stage.
We have seen that mental ill health impacts upon a large swathe of society and that the cost to business is staggering in terms of absenteeism, presenteeism and staff turnover. Yet in a recent survey by ‘Aware’, a leading support body in the area of mental health, 80 percent of Irish businesses have no wellbeing strategy, policies or procedures in place. In this time of great uncertainty, surely this must change in the interests of your employees and your business.

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