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How to manage mental health in the workplace

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Discover employers' legal obligations when it comes to protecting employees' mental health and how to improve mental health in the workplace.

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Improving mental health can boost productivity.

More than half of long-term sick leave is due to depression, anxiety or stress, according to mental health training provider MHFA England. 

For many people, workplace pressure is a major contributor to overall anxiety levels, with one in five workers feeling unable to cope.

The economic impact of this is significant: research from The London School of Economics suggests poor mental health costs the UK economy around £118 billion a year. 

As employers also have a legal requirement to protect their workforces’ welfare, a robust mental health support policy is not just nice to have – it’s a crucial building block for a successful business.

Here, we explain what employers are legally required to do to protect employee mental health and investigate how to improve mental health in the workplace.

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What does the law say about mental health in the workplace?

UK employers have to comply with both the Equality Act 2010 and the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, sometimes described as the Mental Health at Work Act. 

They also have a ‘duty of care’ that involves protecting the physical and psychological health, safety and welfare of their employees while at work. 

This includes treating mental and physical health as equally important, making a proactive effort to stay abreast of employee well-being and providing individual support where necessary. 

Office-based workers must therefore be adequately protected against psychological risks such as undue stress, just as factory workers must wear protective gloves when operating machinery.

It might sound like a lot, but it doesn’t have to cost the earth to meet these guidelines. 

Conversely, prioritising employee well-being can often have a positive impact on your bottom line, as the individuals who make up your workforce are undoubtedly one of your company’s greatest assets, and only happy, healthy individuals can consistently bring their A-game to work.

So, here are five steps to get you started on the path to better mental health management in the workplace. 

1. Investigate mental health within your organisation

How happy and motivated are your colleagues at the present time? Before taking action to improve a situation, you need to understand its current state.

The first step to improving mental health in any workplace, therefore, is to conduct a survey asking workers to share how they are feeling now.

To work out the next steps, it’s useful to split the survey into sections, such as workplace pressures and financial well-being, so you can pinpoint the areas where you can help ease the burden.

As people are often wary of divulging mental health issues at work, it’s also best to do this anonymously where possible, while also performing an independent risk assessment designed to identify potential mental health stress factors.

2. Provide mental health management training

To help create a culture in which people feel comfortable discussing mental health at work, it’s important to normalise conversations on the subject. 

One way to do this is to ask executives or managers to share details of mental health challenges they are facing or have faced in the past.

Line managers should also receive training in how to spot when members of their teams are struggling to cope, as well as what support they can offer when required. 

This training can be outsourced to specialists, such as MHFA England, a social enterprise that offers both online and in-person courses on becoming a Mental Health First Aider who can:

  • Approach the person, assess their needs, and assist with any crisis 

  • Listen and communicate without judging 

  • Give support and information 

  • Encourage the person to get appropriate professional help

3. Offer access to support services

Access to mental health support, including, where possible, a confidential helpline, is a vital part of any workplace mental health strategy. 

This is best done online as it allows those in need to access the support at any time.

Consequently, many employers choose to do this in collaboration with a health insurance or employee benefits provider that can supply a mental health app. These are designed to provide useful information about how to cope with common issues, such as depression or the loss of a loved one. Many apps also provide details of private helplines and public services, such as the Samaritans

In some cases, health insurance packages may also include funding for face-to-face sessions.

4. Address financial concerns

CIPD figures show that more than a quarter of UK employees say money worries affect their ability to do their jobs, while nearly a third feel their productivity levels have been hit by cost-of-living-related concerns.

It therefore makes sense to seek ways to improve the financial well-being of your employees.

These could include offering financial education, for example, around budgeting and money management, and providing information about free debt advice services – such as StepChange – for those in need.

Other practical steps employers can take to improve the financial welfare of their workforce include signing up to an employee discount scheme that enables people to reduce their spending on essentials, such as groceries and utilities. 

You may also want to consider running a salary advance scheme that can help avoid unexpected costs turning into expensive credit card debt.

5. Encourage a good work/life balance 

One of the best ways to improve mental health in the workplace is to allow people the freedom to work in the way that best suits them.

Promoting a more sustainable work-life balance, for example by offering flexible working and designated wellbeing days, is also one of the best ways to improve loyalty and engagement levels.

And mental health charity Mind advocates encouraging people to ensure their working day has a defined beginning and end, for example by developing end-of-day habits such as tidying the desk or workspace when finished. 

Other easy, cost-effective ways to help people manage workplace stress include:

  • Keeping work emails and messages confined to normal working hours

  • Encouraging people to take a proper lunch break that involves leaving their workstation and ideally getting some fresh air 

  • Running seminars and workshops on subjects such as healthy eating, mindfulness, and insomnia

  • Offering the opportunity to volunteer with local charities or get involved in fundraising initiatives

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