How can employers look after their employees’ mental health?
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How can employers look after their employees’ mental health?

14 Mar 2018

The duty of care that employers have extends beyond physical safety. What can employers do to promote mental health?

A recent study by the World Health Organisation concluded that depression is now the leading cause of disability worldwide. An estimated 322m people are experiencing depression right now, up 18pc since 2005.

Obviously, there are more mental illnesses than just depression, but this statistic does make it clear that, as an employer, it is extremely likely that one of your employees will experience mental health issues at some point in their lives.

Employers have a duty of care towards their employees, and this stems beyond providing an adequately safe working environment.

As well as this, however, mental illness is an incredible financial burden when left unchecked. Depression and anxiety cost the global economy an estimated $1trn every year, and a lot of the cost is attributable to decreased labour participation due to illness.

So, the need to create an environment conducive to positive mental health has both ethical and financial imperatives. It can sound like quite a Herculean task but, in reality, small yet significant changes can go a long way to making it easier for employees to speak up about and look after their mental health issues.

Start the dialogue

If an employee is struggling with a mental health problem to the point that they need to bring it to your attention, they are likely feeling daunted by the prospect of starting that conversation.

Mental illness stigma remains a pervasive issue, and this can make employees more inclined to conceal problems from their employers.

The way that you can counteract this is by being the one to start the conversation.

Having a policy on wellbeing and mental health, which outlines how to raise the issue with management, can be a good start, as this will provide employees with a framework.

Having a policy for managers that outlines how to handle sensitive topics such as these can also make the conversation go a bit more smoothly for any employees who may need it.

Know the sign and know the law

It is worth considering having managers trained in something like Mental Health First Aid so that they are more adept at recognising the possible symptoms someone in mental distress could present with.

Even without that kind of training, however, a combination of intuition and observation can help recognise symptoms.

If you notice that an employee seems more distracted, is less productive or has perhaps been uncharacteristically tardy of late, these could all be signs that an employee is experiencing a problem.

Before reprimanding an employee, check in with them first to see what’s going on.

It’s also worth familiarising managers with the laws surrounding mental illness in the workplace. In a nutshell, mental illness is covered under the legislation that protects people with disabilities from discrimination.

Employers are required to make appropriate changes, called ‘reasonable accommodations’, so that people with disabilities can work on an equal basis with others.

In the case of mental health, this includes flexible working hours, letting employees work from home or enabling them to take time off to attend medical appointments.

Offer wellness-oriented benefit programmes

The first thing that must be stressed in any discussion about wellness-related programmes is that they are in no shape or form a suitable treatment for mental illness.

Activities that promote wellness can help to reinforce existing coping skills and stave off mental crisis. But, once crisis arrives, suggesting that someone meditates or goes for a run is pretty useless to them. It’s like suggesting that someone having a heart attack should take an aspirin.

That being said, wellness programmes can be instrumental in maintaining mental health, which will prevent the crisis stage of mental illness ever coming to bear.

Healthy-eating programmes, social activities and facilities such as an on-site gym can all make it easier for your employees to preserve their health.

Promote work-life balance

The flip side of these aforementioned programmes is that they can often end up facilitating a blurring of the lines between work and home life.

While they appear to promote work-life balance, employee perks can end up discouraging workers from leaving the office. It ultimately won’t matter how many perks a person gets at work if they lose their sense of self in the process.

It happens even on a smaller scale when managers send out late-night emails for things that aren’t necessarily emergencies. Having an employee be ‘always on’ may seem like a great way to increase productivity, but it is actually more likely to either exacerbate the problems your employee is experiencing or make them likely to leave.

Issues with both morale and retention are guaranteed to be costly, so really, your best bet is allowing employees to get the requisite down-time away from the office so that they can bring their best, happiest selves to their work.

Eva Short
By Eva Short

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic, specialising in the areas of tech, data privacy, business, cybersecurity, AI, automation and future of work, among others.

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