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Five ways to support mental health in the workplace

Updated: Apr 2

Written by Steven Mullan



World mental health day


Ahead of World Mental Health Day on 10th October 2023, Steven Mullan, Director of SM Safety Training & Consultancy Ltd, offers five steps companies can take to make workplaces more inclusive for workers who have experienced mental health issues.

It’s fair to say the covid-19 pandemic has fuelled a global emergency for mental health, and there’s no sign of letup with ongoing disruption to mental health services and access to treatment. This is compounded by the current cost-of-living crisis and the extra stressor this is putting on people’s everyday lives.

A recent position statement published by The Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCPsych) calls for better workplace support when it comes to meeting mental health challenges to help people with mental health issues return to and stay in work. Indeed, latest statistics from the HSE put stress, anxiety and depression as the leading cause of sick leave, accounting for 50% of ill health absences. While this is a 6% increase on pre-pandemic levels, it’s worth noting that figures were already on the rise in 2019. What’s clear is that employers can play a significant role in providing mental health support not only to safeguard their workers’ wellbeing but to shore up business security and productivity too.


1. Create A Culture Of Transparency

One of the biggest barriers to addressing mental health is the ongoing stigma perpetuated by it being an invisible problem, particularly in the workplace. It stands to reason that the best way to create normalcy is to get people talking. The RCPsych report puts the onus on workplace leaders to start the conversation, recommending “that those in supervisory positions, from the most junior upwards, feel confident enough to identify potential mental health difficulties in their staff and to speak with them about such difficulties.” Whether this message is communicated through one-to-ones, informal forums, structured training or toolbox talks, the aim is to open up discussions around mental health so that an employee doesn’t suffer in silence and allow the problem to grow.


2. Offer Flexibility And Support

According to mental health charity, Mind, studies consistently show that employees who feel valued and supported at work will have higher health and wellbeing levels leading to fewer mental health challenges.

Being able to offer an improved work-life balance is within the remit of the employer. Where possible, consider offering remote or flexible working that balances employees’ individual needs with the business’s running. It is worth pointing out, however, that loneliness and isolation can be a key factor in mental health issues, so remote work comes with its own risk assessment requirements.

Other positive steps employers can take include pointing employees in the direction of recommended counselling and support services and enabling access to them during working hours like they would for other medical appointments. As with any illness, employees returning to work following mental health-related sickness absence should be offered phased returns, return to work assessments and access to training to catch up on any career development they may have missed.


3. Review Policies And Procedures

All relevant HR policies (including health and safety, sickness absence, grievance policies etc) should be joined up in their inclusion and approach to mental health. HR leaders should bear in mind that mental health issues might contribute to incidents leading to disciplinary action and performance management. They should also consider the impact of dismissal and redundancy on individuals by ensuring that appropriate support and access to advocates are available for those who need them.

In terms of legislation, the Equality Act 2010 considers it a disability if someone has “a mental impairment that has a substantial, adverse, and long-term effect on [their] ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.” This means that employees with a mental health disability have the legal right to request reasonable adjustment changes to their job and receive protection from discrimination, victimisation and harassment.


4. Lead From The Top

Managers and leaders are in a unique position to send a clear message to staff about the importance of workplace wellbeing. In the first instance, they should prioritise understanding the triggers for workplace mental health issues, which may include working long hours without breaks, to overly pressurised working environments. They can then take steps to tackle where these issues may arise in their organisations by, for example, actively encouraging and role modelling healthy working habits such as taking full lunch breaks and annual leave as well as working sensible hours.

Employee engagement is also crucial for employers to identify what they may need to do regarding challenging mental health issues. Staff forums and surveys are all useful for employers to take stock of their current approaches to mental health and identify where improvements are needed.


5. Strive To Be Better

Promoting an organisation-wide mental health strategy signals a serious commitment to the issue of mental health, particularly when looking at it through the lens of a broader fairness, inclusion and respect (FIR) approach to working practices which include mental health among its many other topics. A strategy should centre around promoting staff wellbeing, identifying the causes of work-related mental health problems and what support staff need.

Where employers are looking to strengthen their approach to this issue, undertaking the CHAS FIR Growth Assessment will set a benchmark for what they are doing now against what more they need to do to achieve industry best practice and ultimately become industry leaders in supporting mental health challenges in the workplace.


Make Mental Health A Pillar Of Workplace Inclusion

Positive employment has a vital role to play in promoting better mental health. Where, according to RCPsych, a ‘good workplace’ offers “benefits such as job security, an appropriate wage, positive work-life balance, opportunities for career progression, and supportive mental health and wellbeing policies”, employers can look to be rewarded by a loyal, more productive workforce contributing to better business performance.

Supporting mental health in the workplace also goes a long way towards erasing the stigma of mental illness and creating a fairer, more inclusive and respectful inclusive working environment.

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