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Boosting Employee Mental Health: Practical Strategies for a Healthy Workplace

Updated: May 4

A lady is sat at a desk with her head in her hands.  She is struggling with her employee mental health and wellbeing

How to support staff with mental health and wellbeing in the workplace

This month’s blog is written by The HR Hero’s, Trusted Partner #Wellbeing Wendy, of Garrett Learning.

This ‘How to’ blog will help you understand how you can support your team with their mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. According to Mind:

56% of employers said they would like to do more to improve staff wellbeing but don't feel they have the right training or guidance'

Let’s begin.

What is mental health?

We all have mental health; we have good mental health and can experience poor mental health. It’s changeable, it’s on a continuum. According to the Health and Safety Executive:

'one in four people in the UK will have a mental health problem at some point. Anxiety and depression are the most common mental health problems'

Mental health problems are common. An individual’s mental health could be triggered by life events such as:

  • Relationship breakdown

  • Bereavement

  • Financial pressures

  • Homelessness

  • Social isolation

  • Long term health conditions

  • Experienced abuse, domestic violence, traumas, neglect

  • Becoming a carer

  • Retirement

  • Workplace related stress such as workload, shift patterns, working from home, burnout, change of job, new manager, deadlines, job security/redundancy, and being short staffed.

  • Misusing alcohol and drugs.

Positive life events can be stressful: getting married, moving house, going on holiday or the birth of a child.

We may experience good days and bad days for various reasons. Our mental health can be affected by day-to-day events too, such as the car that cuts us up, poor internet connection or perhaps our manager has given us another piece of work to add to our every growing to do list. Everyone is different and we all deal with things in our individual way. It’s important to recognise that what causes distress to one person may not affect another person in the same way.

Mental health is how we think, feel and behave. It’s closely linked to our physical health too. There is no health without mental health. As leaders in our organisations, there are some steps we can take to support our team members.

In 2019, Business in the Community (BITC) researched the reasons to why 4000 people experienced work-related mental health problems. Over 50% of people surveyed said it was due to the pressure and targets set upon them.

Source: Mental Health at Work 2019: Time to Take Ownership report (3)

How to: Spots the signs of poor mental health.

According to

'more than one in five staff members have called in sick to avoid work when asked how workplace stress has affected them'

The common mental health conditions in the workplace are anxiety and depression. Stress is not a mental health condition however stress can affect our mental health.

What is depression?

It’s a feeling of low mood that affects everyday life and can lasts for a long time. It can make individuals feel unmotivated, worthless, guilty, hopeless exhausted and stop partaking in activities that were once enjoyed. Depression will not stop individuals living their life, however it will make everything harder to do. At its worst, depression can make people feel suicidal.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a normal feeling - it’s the feeling we get when we ride a rollercoaster, when we attend a job interview, take an exam or how we feel when we are worried, afraid or scared.

Feelings of anxiety are overwhelming when they last for a long time, it can change our thoughts, attitude and behaviour.

Common causes of anxiety:

  • Overthinking

  • Over-achieving

  • Low self esteem

  • Pessimistic thinking

  • Traumatic events

  • New experiences

What causes one person to be anxious, will be completely different for another person.

Signs in people experiencing poor mental health at work. Some might be subtler than others:

  • A change to mood, behaviour, concentration levels, sleeping/eating habits and neglecting themselves.

  • Socially withdrawing/ not wanting to do thing they usually like, e.g. not attending work social events/eating lunch together.

  • Not answering emails, missing deadlines, difficulty making decisions, not contributing to meetings.

  • Absenteeism/presenteeism.

  • Feeling guilty for taking a break/annual leave.

  • Overwhelming fear for no reason, heart racing or difficulty breathing.

  • Severe, out of control risk-taking behaviour (including self-harm).

  • Intense worries or fears that get in the way of everyday activities.

  • Significant weight loss/gain.

Noticing these changes in our team members should prompt us that it’s time to talk.

How to: Approach the conversation about mental health.

A common misconception is that ‘it’s strange and unhelpful to talk about your mental health’ (5). The opposite is true. We all have mental health and talking about it can help ourselves and others. However, we shouldn’t force people to talk if they don’t want to,, state:

'30% of staff disagreed with the statement 'I would feel able to talk openly with my line manager if I was feeling stressed'

There are many concerns or barriers to why someone might not want to talk to their line manager:

  • Worried about losing their job / securing a promotion

  • It might not feel like a safe space to talk

  • Confidentiality / trust

  • Discrimination

  • Feeling judged

  • It’s difficult for them to talk right now

Once a quiet and private place is found, the conversation starter questions could be asked:

  • How are you feeling today?

  • Is there anything you want to share with me that is on your mind or worrying you?

  • How long have you felt unwell?

  • I’ve noticed recently that you’ve ***taken a few days off/missed a few deadlines/not been your usual self recently***, is there anything you’d like to talk about?

  • Ask them how you can help them.

We shouldn’t force people to talk if they don’t want to. We also need to remember we’re not the professional to deal or cope with what someone shares with us. If they do open up, listening is one of the most important skills.

You’d think we’d be good at listening! However, how many times do we share a concern and someone can relate to it so they start talking about their experience. It happens all the time!

For example: Kiara asks: ‘What’s up with you today Gary?’

Gary: ‘I’ve got toothache’

Kiara: ‘Of yes, I remember when my wisdom teeth were coming through, absolute agony! Get yourself to the dentist and all will be ok’.

What happened there. Kiara actually doesn’t know how Gary is feeling, Kiara has assumed Gary is feeling the same as her when she had a toothache and silver lined the response. We like to make people feel better.

If we re-run that conversation it could have a different outcome:

Kiara asks: ‘What’s up with you today Gary?’

Gary: ‘I’ve got a bad toothache’

Kiara: ‘Sorry to hear this. How long has it been affecting you?

Gary: ‘the past couple of weeks’

Kiara: ‘have you been to the dentist’

Gary: ‘No’

Kiara: ’Oh okay, a couple of weeks is a long time with toothache, have you got an appointment’

Gary: ‘No, I’ve not had chance to book one’

Kiara: ‘Oh why not?’

Gary: ‘Because my mum has been ill and I’ve been looking after her’

In this situation, Kiara, discovers that Gary has got a lot more going on than toothache. She’s asked further questions and got to the root of the problem (excuse the pun)!

Kiara, can then continue the discussion to chat to Gary and provide appropriate support. This is a much more supportive approach as it enables Gary to continue the conversation and share his situation, thoughts and feelings, and he will feel listened to.

We only remember between 25-50% of what we hear. We can improve our active listening skills by:

  • Keep the conversation focused on them

  • Being present and not becoming distracted.

  • Not allowing ourselves to get bored or lose focus.

  • Use body language to acknowledge you’re listening: Nod, eye contact, smile, occasional questions or comments.

  • Defer our own judgement.

  • Be patient.

How to: Offer support and guidance.

We may not understand or know what causes someone to experience poor mental health, however talking about it and signposting people to professional help and support is vital for recovery. We also have a legal obligation to our staff as well. Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974:

Employers have a ‘duty of care’. This means they must do all they reasonable can to support their employees’ health, safety and wellbeing.

Mental health conditions can lead to a disability, and a disability is a protected, characteristic. Our legal obligation to our staff who have a disability, under the Equality Act 2010:

'"must not be discriminated against because of their disability and must make reasonable adjustments"

We need to equip our leaders, manager and team with the skills to help support themselves and others. MHFA (Mental Health First Aid) England mission is to train one in ten people in mental health awareness and skills.

The training programmes enables individuals to support themselves and others, to empower people to notice the signs of poor mental health, encourage the conversations to take place and break down the barriers and stigma that surrounds mental health.

#Wellbeing Wendy, provides MHFA England programmes including:

MHFA Aware – A half day mental health awareness programme which provides a helpful, practical approach to develop understanding.

MHFA One Day Champion - This programme provides awareness of common mental health conditions and understand what support is available to build a mentally healthy workplace.

Mental Health First Aid (MHFAider®) – The two-day programme enables people to develop practical skills to spot the signs of mental health issues and support the person in distress.

Mental Health Guidance for Leaders – A three-hour session to improve understanding of mental health and enables a creative space for the leaders to discover practical approaches in managing mental health at work.

We can support our team members in the workplace by:

  • Promote wellbeing, inclusion, equality and fairness

  • Promote employee wellbeing

  • Create a culture of respect and dignity

  • Update policies with challenging issues such as bereavement, suicide and domestic abuse.

  • Ensure your team have a manageable workload /ability to say no

  • Complete a stress risk assessment.

  • Utilise workplace supports

  • Meaningful back to work interviews

  • Make reasonable adjustments

  • Monitor mental health

  • Implement the Wellness Action Plan (WAP)

How to: Understand boundaries.

As leaders of our organisation, we need to understand our personal and professional boundaries. Boundaries exist to protect people. As a leader people may come to us with problems and we try and fix them. However, we’re not the professionals.

If a team member has poor mental health, we can offer support and information, however the individual needs to follow up with a professional service. We are not qualified to offer specific advice to solve their problems for them.

For example, if a team member breaks their arm, the manager will allow the time off for recovery, however the manager will not apply the plaster cast.

As leaders we need to know our own limits, on what we can do to support others. Healthy workplace relationships need to be managed. We need to signpost our team members to the professionals so they can get the help and support they require.

Where can we signpost people to:

  • HR & follow your internal policies and procedures

  • Mental Health First Aider or Champion

  • GP/ professional supports

  • Improving Access to Psychological Therapy(IAPT)

  • Self-referral at NHS Talking Therapies

  • Hub of Hope app to search for local professional services

Other organisations/charities:

  • Mind A to Z of mental health

  • Samaritans 116123

  • Text SHOUT to 85258

  • Papyrus – prevention of suicide in young people – Hopeline 0800 068 4141

How to: Encourage wellbeing approaches at work.

We can promote and encourage individuals to focus on their wellbeing at work. There are so many services, products, and techniques to assist ourselves and others at work.

  • Employee assistance program (EPA)

  • Utilising private medical insurance

  • NHS 5 steps to mental wellbeing (Connect, Active, Learn, Give, be present)

  • Cycle to work scheme

  • Practice mindfulness (apps, Meditate, Create something, breathing, yoga)

  • Practice gratitude

  • Goal setting - power of three. Identify three goals to achieve for the day

Create a self-management plan - Identify what keeps you well (daily, weekly, occasionally). Identify how you manage life's ups and downs (what helps, what is unhelpful). Plan how you’d best handle new situations. Identify what helps you get your life back in a balance after a situation.

  • Improve exercise/sleep.

  • Meet with family/friends.

  • Online group chats/video calling/ games/Podcasts.

  • Do more things that you enjoy - make a list of these!

  • Learn something new.

  • Schedule in time for you.

Supporting people with poor mental health can at times be shocking and stressful. We need to look after ourselves too. It’s ok to say no if you’re struggling and ask someone else to help support the individual. We need to take time for ourselves. You can’t pour from an empty cup.

The HR Hero is really excited to be partnering with Wendy Garrett from Garrett Learning.

Our trusted partners will add value to your business. To support and engage your people and protect the business.

All employers have a duty of care for their employees. This means being responsible for your people’s health, safety and wellbeing.

Wendy, or Wellbeing Wendy as we like to call her, is a certified instructor for Mental Health First Aid England (MHFA) and can delivery the following programmes both face to face and online:

Adult Mental Health First Aider

MHFA Champion

Mental Health Aware

MHFA Refresher

Wendy's clients have included, Amazon, BMW Group, Birmingham Hippodrome, British Museum, NHS Dental Trust, Probation Service, Remploy, Saltoria Marketing, Stellantis, Unite Students, Valeo and West Mercia Police.

For further information or to connect with #Wellbeing Wendy, click here.

For HR resources that will help support your people, whilst protecting the organisation, take a look at our resource page:

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