Why Employee Mental Health Needs to be a Priority for Your Small Business

Nearly all employees will feel down at some point in their career, and it's your responsibility as a business owner to lend a helping hand

Why Employee Mental Health Needs to be a Priority for Your Small Business

Stress, depression and anxiety are some of the most common health problems in the workplace. In fact, they’re so common that together they affect one in four people every year. Whilst these illnesses aren’t physical – they can’t be identified by a bandage, crutches or a sling – they can be very serious and can lead to poor productivity, lowered morale and a rapid turnover of staff within your business.

What’s more, mental ill health can affect anyone in any business (just like the common cold) yet many managers refuse to accept that these non-physical illnesses exist – “Out of sight, out of mind; these problems aren’t happening in my business; my employees love their jobs.” This attitude sounds shocking but, for many businesses, mental wellbeing remains a taboo subject.

And it’s not just about working towards happier employees either. Of course you should strive to increase morale and ensure your employees enjoy coming to work, but acting retrospectively won’t solve the initial problems. 56% of employers say they would like to do more to improve staff wellbeing but don’t feel they have the right training or guidance – so where do you begin? “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.”

In order for their efforts to be successful, businesses must act to prevent mental health issues arising amongst employees as a result of their work. For employers and managers, mental health needs to be a priority right from the start, and not just something they attempt to address when the damage has already been done.

Benefits for your business

Making mental health a priority in your business brings with it many benefits. Here are just a few of them:

1. Productivity. Mentally-healthy people are more productive, more confident and happier at work. Deadlines will be met, meetings will be successful and the workplace will be an enjoyable place to be.

2. Attracting talent. You’ll attract the best new employees because they can see that you take wellbeing seriously, in particular the millennial generation who prioritise the work-life balance far higher than their older peers. A 2014 survey by Deloitte revealed that millennials are more likely to leave a business if their wellbeing needs are not being met.

3. Less sick leave. The number of lost working days will reduce as people are less likely to take sick leave. The average employee takes seven days off sick each year, 40% of which are for mental health problems.

4. Lower staff turnover. Staff turnover will reduce, as will your recruitment costs, and you’ll be able to retain the excellent employees that you’ve already got. A 2013 poll for the charity Mind found that 60% of respondents would recommend their organisation as a good place to work if their employer took action to support mental wellbeing, 56% said that they would be more productive and 50% would be less likely to take time off.

5. Staff morale will improve. You’ll develop strong networks of people. Fostering a ‘we’re all in this together’ environment encourages teamwork, openness and discussion about mental health. It’s no secret that ‘people need people’ and mental health gets a good boost in workplaces where chatting about it is the norm.

6. You’ll avoid legal headaches. Your business won’t get into any legal trouble for not taking mental health issues seriously. If the condition prevents the person from accessing work normally then it can be classified as a ‘disability’ under the Equality Act 2010 and, as an employer, you must make reasonable adjustments to help the person return to work.

How the workplace negatively impacts mental health

There are various ways in which your workplace could be negatively affecting employees’ mental health; even if you think you’ve got everything covered. Mental health can be affected by:

  • Stress and worry due to persistent pressures, such as deadlines.
  • Unclear or unrealistic responsibilities and expectations.
  • A poor working environment (e.g. noise, temperature, lighting).
  • Long working hours without breaks.
  • Bullying, harassment or frequent arguments.
  • Boredom or lack of fulfilment in the job role.
  • Lack of direction, supervision or career development.
  • Lack of appreciation.

How the workplace can positively impact mental health

You’ll be glad to hear that it’s not all bad news and the workplace can also have a positive impact on mental health, as well as a negative one. Mental health can be enhanced by work because:

  • It gives people an identity, status and helps to boost self-esteem.
  • It makes people feel worthwhile if they’re doing something that helps someone or enables the business to succeed.
  • It provides a constant team of people who can act as a support network.
  • It gives structure to everyday life.
  • It provides goals to work towards.

Creating a wellbeing policy

A wellbeing policy is a great way for all businesses to prove that they take mental health seriously. Ideally you should create a wellbeing policy when you first create your business so that the procedures are a priority from the start, but it’s never too late to get going. There’s no moment like the present.

Before implementing a wellbeing policy into an existing business it’s a good idea to assess how well your company is already doing. For example, you could conduct an anonymous survey to see what employees currently think about their mental wellbeing in relation to work. Ask questions such as: does your work impact negatively or positively on your mental health? Does the workplace currently support your mental wellbeing? What can the business do to improve your mental wellbeing? You can then identify the areas that need attention.

The key points for the policy should be:

1. How will you promote wellbeing?

Consider how you’ll raise awareness of mental wellbeing, how you’ll promote discussion about mental health, how you’ll encourage a good work/life balance and how you’ll help employees to feel safe at work.

The Health and Safety’s Executive’s Management Standards may be useful to help you identify the main areas of the workplace that are likely to cause poor wellbeing.

2. How will you prevent mental health problems occurring?

Consider how you can change the workplace to make it more comfortable, how people’s responsibilities are communicated to them, the training and development opportunities and how you’ll continue to supervise and mentor employees.

How will you support staff?

Consider what you’ll do in the long term to support workers, including how you’ll encourage people to discuss any concerns or problems, how you’ll identify a mental health problem, how you’ll react to someone who discloses a problem, what changes you can make to the workplace to help them and how you’ll help people return to work if they’ve taken time off due to mental ill-health.

You should then record your answers to each of these points in the form of an action plan which you can refer to throughout the lifetime of your business. Remember to review and update the policy regularly, particularly if you learn new information or if your procedures and approaches aren’t proving to be effective.

Questions your business needs to consider

The following checklist can be used to help you assess how well your business is promoting mental health and learn what you can do to improve and prioritise it further:

  • Does your business have a wellbeing policy or charter?
  • Do you actively encourage people to talk about mental health?
  • Do you provide the opportunity to talk, e.g. one-to-ones?
  • Do you know how to support an employee with a mental health problem?
  • How do you help people return to work if they’ve been off with mental ill-health?
  • Do you encourage positive lifestyle choices, e.g. healthy eating and exercise?
  • Do you have staff social events, inside and outside of work hours?
  • Does your business promote equality and diversity?
  • Do you allow workers to take a break and encourage them to use their holiday time?
  • Do you offer flexible working hours, e.g. for GP appointments?
  • Are staff allowed to go home on time or are they expected to stay late?
  • Have you made reasonable adjustments for people with mental health conditions?
  • Do you have a policy in place to deal with bullying/harassment?
  • How do you communicate any changes to the business in order to reduce anxiety?
  • Are employees involved in your decision making processes?
  • Are employees clear of their roles and responsibilities?
  • Do you motivate your staff to come to work?
  • Are managers trained in how to identify risks and recognise problems?
  • Are employees trained in mental health awareness?

It’s clear that employee mental health needs to be a priority in your business right from the starting blocks. Taking your workers’ wellbeing seriously will help your business to grow, thrive and prosper thanks to the happy, healthy and productive workforce that you’ve created and maintained. Promoting employee mental health doesn’t require specialist equipment or large amounts of money; it simply requires your genuine care and attention for the people around you.

Louise Petty is content coordinator at High Speed Training

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