How to create a mentally healthy work environment

Last week I joined a Mind webinar, where experts from the charity pointed out that sweeping mental health under the carpet is costing businesses dearly. It’s estimated that mental health problems among workers cost the economy over £26 billion per year.

The impact at ground level – particularly in a small business – can be significant. If people are cracking under the pressure of work, for example, it will affect their productivity, creativity and motivation. Of course those who are struggling to cope are also much more likely to take time off work. Work-related stress is in fact now one of the top causes of employee absence.

In a previous blog, we looked at what actions individual managers can take to ease the pressure on their teams. But there are also many things the business overall can do to create a mentally-healthy workplace.The following three-pronged approach advocated by Mind can make an enormous difference to the well-being and effectiveness of your teams.

Promote well-being

An open culture where there is an on-going dialogue with staff and people feel valued and involved is the bedrock of a mentally healthy workplace. There needs to be a clear message from the top that it’s OK to say if you’re not coping and that the directors of the business support working sensible hours and expect people to take their lunch break.

Making investment in learning and development a priority is also important. If people feel properly equipped to do their jobs they are less likely to become anxious about their work and more capable of coping with the challenges that are thrown at them. It’s not just about equipping people with technical or specialist skills, it’s also about helping them develop the techniques to manage their workload and cope with setbacks. Activities that can help might include ‘lunch and learn’ sessions on issues like time management and ‘smarter’ working or small action learning groups where people can help each other work through professional challenges.

An emphasis on physical and social activities can also help to promote well-being. Why not start a company yoga class, set up a netball or football team or organise a lunchtime power walk to give people a break and help them re-energise and relieve stress.

Tackle the work-related causes of mental health issues

Businesses often unwittingly create conditions that cause their people stress and anxiety. The economic climate is putting companies under unprecedented pressure – and particularly in an SME, where there are a limited number of hands on deck, it’s easy for a busy environment to tip over into an inappropriately high pressure one. Unrealistic deadlines are set, communication between colleagues decline and relationships begin to disintegrate as everyone struggles to meet ever more demanding targets.

The key to making sure this doesn’t happen in your business is to help managers understand how to better manage workloads and to spot and deal with early signs of stress. A culture of regular one-to-ones, for example, can provide a forum where people can openly discuss work-related issues and launch a warning signal if they are struggling to cope. This may call for a shift in mindset on the part of some managers, who have a tendency to regard performance management as an opportunity to ‘pull people up’ on poor performance or missed deadlines, rather than looking at the underlying causes and what additional support may be needed. Some businesses have found that providing managers with a template agenda to follow can ensure discussions are framed in a way which encourages people to openly discuss the challenges they are facing.

Don’t forget to consider the physical environment people are working in too. Hot (or cold), noisy and overcrowded offices where equipment doesn’t work properly can all add to the pressure piling on to beleaguered employees.

Support employees with mental health problems

If employees have a good relationship with their manager and feel they are working in a business that values them they are much more likely to come forward and seek support if a mental health issue arises. Make sure as a business that you regularly publicise any internal or external support that is available – such as access to an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) for example.

A Wellness Recovery Action Plan, which outlines help available for the employee plus any steps line managers can take to support them, can also be a useful tool. Workplace adjustments that will help the individual cope better are an area to explore as part of this plan. It might be possible to make changes to an individual’s hours, for example, or to relocate their work station to a more conducive environment.

It’s important to recognise that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution and the approach will be different for each individual employee.

Free information and resources are available from Mind to help businesses create more mentally healthy workplaces. You can also view the webinar on which this blog is based via www.mind.org.uk.

You may be interested in reading our guide to practising compassionate leadership

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