Counselling cafés are springing up across the country to encourage people to talk about their innermost feelings and anxieties. While some concentrate on bereavement or tackling loneliness, others are intended to give people a warm and relaxed environment in which to seek guidance from others and, importantly, to share how they feel.
Almost all of these facilities are housed in community buildings and church halls, but following the release of new Government figures that show employers lose up to £42 billion each year due to mental health and the economy loses a staggering £99 billion, counselling cafés could well be the answer for managing mental health in the workplace too.
Mental health is fast becoming the scourge of the workplace. At work, these issues are most likely to manifest as anxiety or depression and can be the result of workload, bullying or lack of training amongst other things. Equally, it can also be the result of things happening at home such as family breakdown, bereavement or financial worries. Employee-minded companies now accept that, regardless of the cause, they have a duty of care to their employees. After all, healthier and happier employees are also more engaged and therefore likely to unlock the extra discretionary effort needed to push the economy forward.
The idea of café counselling is in itself very simple and there’s nothing ground-breaking about people talking about their feelings. However, in the workplace, sharing concerns about mental health has for a long time been taboo. This week the Government also revealed that 300,000 people lose their jobs each year due to mental health issues and herein lies the problem. When terminated employment could well be the outcome, what incentive is there for employees to share their innermost concerns with their employers?
For many, the incentive is just what it should be – the potential for more support, help and guidance, but for those organisations where wellbeing has been given little consideration to date, the incentive is likely to be notably absent.
Firstly, and most importantly, we must eradicate the stigma of mental health in society and at every level within the workplace. While there are plenty of public information campaigns working to try and address this, organisations must make their own efforts too. That might start with ensuring the senior management are on-board with improving employee wellbeing without judgement and that employees are educated about self-care and mental health too. It also means ensuring that the workplace has a positive, healthy and supportive culture, one where employees feel their needs are being met and that they can seek help from their peers and managers in order to do the best job possible.
Workplace culture underpins the whole wellbeing picture, for successful wellbeing relies on employees feeling and knowing they can ask for help. In addition, it must also be supported by instilling preventative behaviours – this might be ensuring that line managers know how to spot the signs of stress, that there are frequent opportunities for appraisals and discussions about wellbeing and that there’s a natural culture of peer-to-peer support within all departments across the business.
Creating counselling café culture in your workplace could be one of the simplest and yet most effect ways to start taking responsibility for the mental health needs of employees. As most workplaces now include break-out spaces and staff cafés and canteens, part of the infrastructure is already in place. The attendance of a team of counsellors for a few sessions per week could give employees the opportunity to share their worries in a relaxed setting, safe in the knowledge that it is a private and impartial service without fear of judgement or reprisal.
While providing these services does incur some cost (time of people not working and the fees for counsellors), the benefits far outweigh the outlay by avoiding days lost to sickness and talent loss to long-term ill-health, not to mention the reputational kudos of showing that employee welfare and wellbeing are paramount to your business.
As part of the Government’s independent review of mental health at work, it has also published six core mental health standards which all employers should strive to meet. One of these standards is to encourage open conversations, which a counselling café certainly meets. The other guidance includes creating a mental health plan at work, building mental health awareness amongst all employees, providing good working conditions and ensuring employees have a healthy work-life balance, promoting effective people management and regularly monitoring employee mental health.
The Government has said it is considering legislative changes to better support mental health at work and we are heartened by this and the sentiments expressed by the head of the civil service, Sir Jeremy Heywood, who said: “Mental health is often a secondary or forgotten part of our wellbeing but its implications cannot be underestimated. Good mental health is essential for our wellbeing and paramount to a strong, happy and productive workforce.”
Mental health issues are increasing at an exponential rate and as such are something that UK businesses can ill afford to ignore. It’s time for employers to start asking what more they can do to support employee wellbeing as a whole and mental health in particular, in order to protect their greatest asset of all – their people. The old saying ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ seems more relevant than ever. Perhaps it’s time to put the kettle on and start a counselling café in your workplace.
To find out more about workplace wellbeing and how to write a wellbeing agenda, download our Workplace Wellbeing whitepaper, which is full of guidance and advice: