In May 2011, Mind issued a report on mental health in the workplace, and how Government, employers and colleagues can best support one another on this thorny issue.
Mind campaign to create a society that promotes and protects good mental health for all, and where people with experience of mental distress are treated fairly, positively and with respect. In the report they stated that 1 in 6 workers is experiencing depression, anxiety or stress and that this is costing the UK economy £26 billion each year.
Mind recognised that businesses can save money by creating a mentally healthy workplace, and offered to provide employers with guides and advice. Speaking to employers, many have no idea of the help out there, and had never heard of this initiative or the brilliant 'Time To Change' campaign- with only two people out of seventeen I spoke to recently connecting the TV ads with a workplace mental health campaign.
To refresh our memories, Mind set out some simple and practical steps that can make a workplace more mentally healthy and help people cope with the pressures of the working day. I've set out my own understanding of them below in brackets:
• Connect: (engage with others and your role)
• Be active: (sitting at that desk all day isn't healthy. Move around. Tax your brain a little.)
• Take notice: (look after others, as well as yourself)
• Learn: (develop a real understanding of mental health and stress factors in your environment. Learn and develop new skills to keep your thinking- and your role- fresh.)
• Give: (a little basic human kindness makes an immeasurable difference sometimes. Be generous with your knowledge, your ears and your time.)
• Take action: (don't ignore an issue, whether it affects you or not.)
Is your understanding different? Please do comment below. (I like to be challenged on this stuff. I can only learn from it.)
So what did they recommend could be done? Well, the report's key calls to action were as follows:
● Employees should be provided with genuine control over their work and an appropriate degree of self-management of workload.
● Roles should be clearly demarcated with defined responsibilities and expectations.
● Employees should have a say in planning and decision making.
So far, so logical, right? It's good to see movements like Engage for Success springing up in partial response the Mind report and other studies, but with a belief that engagement leads to growth. There's certainly a link, but as we see today, even the most committed and engaged staff on the 'shop floor' can't save a business from irreversible decline thanks to bad decisions at the top. Engagement is not a one-way street, nor do the Board escape responsibility in this.
Also, if this HR person is overwhelmed by the plethora of voices all screaming "ENGAGEMENT!" and offering differing, sage advice- what hope does an average MD have of identifying what's best for their business?
● The physical workplace environment should be of a high standard, including natural light where possible, good ventilation, good health and safety practices.
● Employees should be actively discouraged from working excessively long hours.
● A supportive working environment should be provided for people with mental health problems.
● Flexible hours schemes should be introduced to take account of regular hospital check-ups.
All great ideas and highly commendable, and certainly in an ideal world (and stronger economic conditions) I am sure employers would be falling over themselves to refurbish offices, learn all about mental health issues, overcome prejudices and misconceptions, review working hours and employ more people to help them meet these requirements. This doesn't excuse them from doing nothing, mind you, as health and safety requirements on us all prevent employers and employees making workplaces uninhabitable. As for the basics of occupational health, a simple strategy for this is quickly and easily implemented and properly managed, can deliver surprising results.
● There should be a gradual return to work for those who have had to take time out after illness.
● Positions should be kept open during sickness absence.
● There should be on-the-job support and mentoring schemes.
● There should be ways of tackling employment discrimination and providing support during periods of ill health.
I think legislation has addressed much of this- generally good employers would offer a gradual return and they are more aware of ways to address discrimination nowadays, if they have access to decent HR advice. IF, there. I appreciate that not every employer can afford or allow for a phased return to work, lighter duties and so on- but again, it doesn't mean the position is irreversibly damaged and there's nothing to be done.
● There should be government support for proactive recruitment of people with mental health problems.
● There should be better legislation to protect people with mental health problems from discrimination, including provision for those who experience episodes of depression of less than 12 months.
● There should be improved mental health assessment for people applying for the two new benefits replacing Incapacity Benefit.
Here's an interesting bit- where can those in Government step up? So in the eighteen months plus since the report appeared, what's happened?
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has closed a loophole that saw doctors 'section' up to 5000 patients without being technically qualified to do so under the legislation. Labour leader Ed Miliband called for an end to the 'taboo' around mental health. Gavin Barwell MP has introduced a Bill, likely to become law, to scrap the law that prohibits those with a history of mental illness from becoming MPs (a Bill which sadly doesn't translate to other professions.) All positive steps, but for every bit of good news there's cause for concern, too. Out of work benefits for those with short and longterm mental health issues are under scrutiny, too.
So what do Mind say employers can do? Firstly, they set out the need to encourage awareness, understanding and openness when handling or talking about stress and mental health in the workplace. And this is a huge sticking point- not everyone CAN. It's not always a generational or cultural thing; some people are just unable or unwilling to talk about depression, anxiety or any other mental stress they've seen or faced. A need for a change in the workplace can drive a change in their thinking, but we must accept that there will always be those who don't want to admit that they have, or have encountered, an issue of this type.
Mind recommend too that businesses adopt and adhere to formal policies on stress and mental health in the workplace and demonstrate a commitment to addressing issues. It's great to have policies, but they must do more than sit on a shelf- they must inform the culture of the organisation and how it operates. Also, a commitment must be universal- not favouring the 'easier' cases, but positively supporting all.
Mind also call upon organisations to allow employees to make reasonable adjustments in working patterns such as flexible working or working from home to help them to manage mental health problems and work related stress issues. Business leaders, get off the ceiling: you won't be managing this kind of thing regularly. Really. Well, you shouldn't- unless you're getting it drastically wrong.
Businesses should also offer resources or procedures to help manage stress at work and generally improve mental wellbeing. This might be stress awareness training, access to counselling or stress-reducing measures such as supporting staff facing personal pressures with time and advice to get things resolved. It might be organising things so you can give staff the opportunity to 'recharge' by visiting a favourite local place (the image on the left is from the Natural History Museum, of course- a place I love to visit whenever I need a boost.) Yours might be a local park or cafe, another museum or a walk by a river. Giving people time and space to access these things can help enormously.
This could be read as placing a huge burden on small businesses, but remember- you don't need to be an expert, do all of the above, or do it all yourself. That's why companies like us are in business; and we know that often the smallest things like ensuring people have the resources they need to do their job (including a sense of being valued and cared for) generate the greatest goodwill.
For more info on workplace health and wellbeing, clickety click here.
For details of your nearest local Mind association and of local services, contact Mind's helpline, MindinfoLine on 0300 123 3393
or go to www.mind.org.uk