Honesty and openness are the key to workplace wellbeing.

April 6, 2018    Ann Clarke     ,

New research from the London School of Economics has revealed that employees who can speak openly about their depression with their managers are more productive than those whose bosses avoid the issue.

With mental health estimated cost to the UK economy £35 billion it’s a very real and costly issue and one that, thankfully, has started to get the media attention and widespread acceptance it rightly deserves.

The research, highlighted in The Guardian last week, also found that when employees’ managers were unsupportive, more sick days were lost because “…where employers create a culture of avoidance around talking about depression, employees themselves end up avoiding work and even when they return to work they are not as productive as they could be.”

A separate study of Millennials, the generation that will dominate the workforce by 2020, expanded on this idea and showed a direct link between openness and loyalty. Fifty-seven per cent of Millennials say that work-life balance and wellbeing in a job are very important to them and 62% of Millennials who feel they can talk with their manager about non-work-related issues say they plan to be with their current employer one year from now. A clear indication of the value of meaningful and open employee-employer relationships and the correlation with loyalty.

Thankfully, in recent years the concept of employee and workplace wellbeing has moved beyond throw-away gimmicks and token gestures to become a serious, board-level concern, particularly for people-centric organisations and the growing number of knowledge economy businesses. Certainly not an altogether altruistic act, this commitment is most likely to be in response to the UK’s growing productivity gap and the need to keep the brightest and best staff motivated, well, happy and loyal.

We are in the midst of a mental health pandemic, yet awareness is still not where it needs to be in order to affect positive change. Approximately one in four people will experience a mental health issue each year which means that 25% of a workforce could be dealing with depression, anxiety or a whole host of other mental health conditions at any one time. Combine this with the fact that many sufferers conceal their condition for fear of discrimination at work and it’s clear that ignoring this issue only heightens individuals’ anxieties, inhibits their contributions and is a threat to commercial productivity, not to mention the wider repercussions it has for society as a whole.

Finding ways to better support employees has the potential to reduce the days lost to either short or long-term sickness and increase engagement, commitment and productivity. However, offering mental health support and wellbeing requires education, typically starting with people at the top, in order to de-stigmatise the issue and create a truly open, inclusive and non-judgemental working culture.

Interestingly, Millennials’ arrival in the workplace may be helping the cause further. This generation wants to feel valued and to work for positive, responsible and people-centric employers with whom they share values.  Such is the strength of this feeling that they will vote with their feet and keep moving jobs to meet their needs. Organisations that miss the mark with mental and physical wellbeing and work-life balance, are essentially inviting this generation to leave and are setting themselves up for a tarnished employer reputation.

Wellbeing is not a one-off activity though, it requires continual appraisal and adjustment in order to meet employees’ real needs, rather than making assumptions as to what wellbeing means for them.  Google is case in point. A 2013 review of its wellbeing programme revealed that its workforce was not as happy and well as it had expected, even though it offered massage rooms, free lunches, and space within the company garden to grow their own vegetables amongst other wellbeing measures.  Shortly after this was realised, one of the Google’s senior executives told the workforce that he was suffering with stage four cancer. While the news was shocking, it united the team and showed that it was ok to share personal problems with one another.  This simple act of sharing something so deeply personal proved that openness and honesty, rather than facilities and perks, were essential to meaningful and relevant wellbeing.

The growing discussion around mental health at work is certainly helped by great public awareness, improved government support, and increased corporate transparency, however the workplace has been slow to engage in this conversation. However, while there are some progressive wellbeing-focused employers, there is still much work to be done.

Organisations that proclaim to be people-centric must put far greater support on education and training in order to create a culture of support, where honesty and openness is encouraged and problems, concerns and anxieties of all types can be discussed. These organisations can further support this by giving employees the autonomy to choose their work location and hours, providing non-traditional health benefits such as free yoga classes, free fruit and access to counselling, offering greater opportunities for personal development and new skills, sharing their mission and values and engaging in wider CSR activities that let employees feel they are making a difference.

The mental health pandemic is real. By really investing in employees’ holistic wellbeing and taking a more human approach to people management, businesses will reap a bounty of benefits including loyalty and productivity. It is imperative that UK employers champion mental wellbeing and actively be the change.

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:

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