Mental health issues are on the up – is your business wellbeing-ready?

September 13, 2017    Ann Clarke     ,

As new figures reveal that a third of workplace absenteeism in the UK is mental health related, the subject of employee wellbeing is cast firmly back into the spotlight.

Employee health and workplace wellbeing has been an increasing concern for employers over the last 10 years as issues such as finding and retaining the best talent, improving productivity and reducing the costs attached with absenteeism have grown in importance too.

The new report, undertaken by the NHS* over a 28-month period and reported on the Workplace Insight website earlier this week, revealed that mental health and behavioural conditions were the most common reasons for employees to be off sick (31%) and that stress and anxiety-related issues were responsible for a 14% increase in sick days on the previous year.

Sickness, particularly short-term, presents real challenges for businesses as ebbs and flows in available resource impact on productivity, output and the workload of others. Thought to cost the UK economy approximately £18bn in lost productivity each year, the UK’s number of sick days has been increasing steadily since 2011 and mental health is almost certainly one of the biggest contributors.

However, the future is looking much brighter for employees. Workplace wellbeing is now a subject worthy of boardroom attention (and consequently funding) and the emergence of new job roles such as head of workplace experience suggest that employee value is increasing all the time. A global shortage of talent and a well-documented skills gap have forced companies to place greater value on their people as they accept the importance of employer reputation and that they can ill afford to lose talent, knowledge or skills.

Workplace culture is a huge contributor to mental health. Culture is about the management, values, systems and behaviours that are inherent in your place of work. A positive workplace culture will have high morale and therefore be able to boost productivity, keep employees engaged and ultimately enable them to stay healthy. The opposite is also true. Psychological injury is the term used to describe the effects of stress and anxiety in workplaces with dysfunctional cultures and poor leadership. A controlling or bullying colleague, a line manager’s inability to deal with conflict or an unacceptable degree of workplace incivility can all create psychological injury and affect the wellbeing of employees both at work and at home.

Effective and healthy workplace cultures are supportive, open and friendly. They put employee wellbeing on an equal footing with productivity and work hard to keep employees well trained, supported, motivated and engaged. Of course, this is partly to minimise the costs associated with sickness and lost talent, but it is also about nurturing, retaining and attracting the best talent. Here are seven key considerations to keep the physical health and mental wellbeing of your employees in check and ensure your workplace culture is on point:

Actively ask your team how they feel about the business – what do they think of the culture, what do they like and not like, do they share the company’s values, what gives rise for concern and in what other areas do they need support? By investing in this exercise and considering the answers in relation to the number of sick days and types of sickness your business experiences, you will gain a clear indication of workforce and workplace wellbeing and what more can be done.

1. Lead from the top and act quickly: If addressing workplace wellbeing and mental health is important to your organisation, it must lead from the top. Ensure management adopts the behaviours you want the rest of your team to copy and promote company values in this area. In addition, if you’re made aware of employees’ concerns, told about instances of bullying or observe poor workplace behaviour, it is important to investigate and act on it quickly. Be prepared to invest in training for managers and employees where needed.

2. Get training: Train line managers to spot the ‘warning signs’ for employees who are struggling either mentally or physically and don’t let annual performance reviews be the only time line managers and their teams sit down to talk. The more employees are given an opportunity to share concerns, the more scope there is to get the right help before issues turn into short-term, or worse-still, long term sick leave.

3. Implement policy: Invest in a proactive workplace wellbeing programme and communicate it with your team. Consider which benefits and perks you can introduce to help employees feel valued and invest in themselves. This requires a holistic view of employees’ needs and to accept that employee health and performance can be affected by factors outside work (e.g. financial pressures, child-care issues etc.). Benefits are increasingly moving away from gym membership or discounts for local retailers, to include duvet-days, flexible or remote working, online access to medical health professionals, access to volunteering opportunities and the ability to learn new life skills such as healthy eating and nutrition or fitness and exercise.

4. Critique the workplace: Establish whether your workplace is fit for purpose and consider if aspects of its design or layout may be compounding issues and adding to stress. Many of the complaints against open plan offices focus on the propensity for distraction, noise and lack of privacy. Consider whether employees have the right facilities, spaces and tools to do their jobs and whether the environment could be improved to help performance and wellbeing too. The move to activity-based working is certainly a response to wellbeing concerns as it gives employees the option to choose a space conducive to the task in hand. The growing amount of square footage given over to social spaces and the introduction of sit-stand desking to get employees more mobile, healthy and less sedentary also contribute to this new growing recognition for wellbeing.

5. Empower employees: Look at ways to make staff more empowered about how, where and when they work. Embracing more agile ways of working will give employees more control and help to reduce some of the potential stress triggers (e.g. long commutes, difficulties with child care). Make sure that employees have the right technology and support systems to do this and create a culture of trust so they feel trusted and ‘allowed’ to work in this way.

6. Reduce the stigma: Ensure employees and line managers know they can ask for help and that it’s ok to talk about fears, concerns and anxieties. A culture of support is vital to encourage employees to open up without fear of reprisal (or replacement). Use internal communications channels and line manager meetings to reinforce the message and put support systems in place for those in need.

Effective workplace wellbeing requires the right blend of culture, health and happiness, and that means a social and inspiring environment that supports the way an individual organisation works. Mental health issues are a growing concern for the UK, but thankfully more is being done to raise awareness, provide support and break the stigma.

With more and more businesses relying on the knowledge, expertise and mental dexterity of employees, it’s impossible to ignore a company’s responsibilities with regard to employee health and wellbeing. Without a proactive approach to keeping employees engaged, motivated and well, absenteeism will only get worse, bringing with it heightened costs, eventual staff attrition and an even greater dearth of knowledge and expertise. It may be a cliché but as Richard Branson said, “A company’s employees are its greatest asset and your people are your product”. It’s sage advice for today’s business leaders.

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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