Mental health is of growing importance to many organisations, and there are a number of steps HR should follow in order to proactively and holistically improve psychological health and wellbeing outcomes.
Dr David Batman, a consultant occupational health physician and member of Virgin Pulse science advisory board, explained that mental health is one of the major health issues affecting both employee and business performance.
However, the lack of immediate and obvious visibility coupled with the stigma affecting mental health remains a major problem – and employees, in times of uncertainty and lack of trust, are still reluctant to be open with their places of employment.
“Resilient and healthy businesses need healthy and resilient employees and there is an increasing awareness of the need to educate, identify and support employees with mental health problems,” he said.
All levels of management recognise the problem, but Batman said they are struggling with how to address the problem.
While the business world is increasingly putting mental health on the agenda and business performance matrices, approaches to this remain inconsistent.
“Many businesses remain with an approach to implement stress management courses: stress being only one of many mental health problems, and focus on affected employees or those who they believe are more at risk,” he said.
More educated businesses are developing a holistic wellbeing approach, recognising that at any one time 20 per cent of their workforce will have a degree of mental health issues and one in three will have major mental health problem over the course of their lifetimes.
Common gaps and challenges
While awareness of mental health is increasing, “we still face a world where people with mental health problems face stigma and discrimination”, said Batman, who was the former head of safety for Nestle UK and Ireland and who has also advised other major businesses including Marks and Spencer, Novartis and P&O Ferries on health and wellbeing.
“Leadership should be the first to broach the topic and develop a culture of trust”
“Understanding from management and colleagues remains a problem, and access to professional health patchy and difficult in many areas.”
Most employees who experience distress try to keep their feelings hidden because they are afraid of other people’s responses, observed Batman, who added that fear of discrimination and feelings of shame are among the top reasons people give for not telling their colleagues about their mental health problems.
Furthermore, managers at all levels often have no training or support to identify employees who are having mental health problems, who often struggle at work and end up in performance/disciplinary procedures – which accentuate rather than resolve issues.
“I’m a firm believer that leadership should be the first to broach the topic and develop a culture of trust,” he said.
“We need to create workplace cultures where people can be themselves, made easier for employees to speak about mental health concerns without fear, and easier for them to reach out for help when they need it.”
Batman said it is vital that workplaces become environments where people feel safe to be open with line management and HR and be themselves.
“In most cases HR is seen as the owners of mental health at work but the best chance of success is when a culture change is owned at C-suite level and championed by the business,” he said.
“HR can facilitate.”
The link between mental health and engagement
A study by MIND organisation in the UK found that 60 per cent of employees would feel more motivated and more likely to recommend their organisation as a good place to work if their employer acted to support mental wellbeing.
“It’s clear that there’s a link between mental health and engagement at work – and vice versa,” said Batman.
“The best chance of success is when a culture change is owned at C-suite level and championed by the business”
Increasingly, he observed that employers have accepted that employee engagement is key to the success of their business and are trying to act, “but most are unaware of the obstacle in their path: employee mental health.”
“The conundrum remains – do employees start to develop mental health problems, from whatever the cause which could be work- or home-related, and become disengaged – or, does lack of engagement with their business and/or line manager, which results in a mental health problem?”
Batman said there is increasing science-based evidence to show that factors like insufficient sleep, lack of exercise, 24-hour business communications, difficult working environments and stress/anxiety over workload are affecting employees’ ability to feel truly connected to their organisation’s goals and values – no matter how high their salary or generous their benefits package.
A holistic approach to addressing psychological wellbeing
The first and most important step is the requirement for a business to recognise the importance of addressing mental health of employees – and developing a culture of understanding and support.
“The way forward is not just to have projects or short-term initiatives to address the problem, but make support part of the business culture,” he said.
“Start at the very top of an organisation, involving all the C-suite, and be visible and open with the subject.
“I’m a firm believer that leadership should be the first to broach the topic and develop a culture of trust.”
Batman also said it is important to stop differentiating between physical and mental health and talk about “health”.
The causes of distress in both areas of health are often common – and the solutions are the same: “I have always known and supported the concept that individuals can have control over 70 per cent of their risks of ill health but most people believe ill health happens by chance,” he said.
“Not so. Common factors will address all areas – exercise, adequate length and quality of sleep, correct nutrition and hydration, developing an integrated approach to work and life, avoiding stimulants and having great open social contacts all help.”
Because of the prevalence of mental health at all levels, Batman said a proactive approach to health and developing personal and collective resilience has to be the best proactive way forward.
“The evidence is available to support such an approach,” he said.
“It’s clear that there’s a link between mental health and engagement at work – and vice versa”
“Despite the above approach some employees will still develop mental health issues, and having an open and honest approach to health with allow them to come forward and then business providing specialist support services will all help”
“Resilient businesses need resilient employees. Healthy businesses need healthy employees.
“Now the differences are not going to be immediate. It’s not like a light switch. You need to persevere and you will see changes.”
5 ways HR can help improve psychological wellbeing
- Although HR traditionally makes mental health an integral part of employee management, support and part of the business manpower planning and development process. HR should be an enabler and facilitator but not a direct owner which is best placed, owned and championed at C-suite level.
- Support a culture embracing health in all aspects and not differentiating mental health and potentially increasing focus and stigma
- Integrate mental health, resilience for all into all training programmes. Make people management a core line manager competency.
- Encourage open and honest conversations at all business levels. Train all line managers to recognise when employees may be failing and developing a mental health problem, how to have empathetic and supportive conversations with employees and know where professional help is available.
- Make holistic lifestyle awareness, development and support programs readily available which embrace exercise, sleep awareness and support, good nutritional advice, stress awareness, good social contacts and develop a culture where 24-hour communications and impact on personal time manageable.