For Mental Health Awareness Week, Naomi Thompson, Head of Organisational Development at Benenden Health, provides insight into how employers can create a culture of openness around mental health

As the COVID-19 crisis puts a strain on the nation’s mental health, employers must ensure they have a plan in place to support the wellbeing of their employees.

Our recent survey into the motivations of a multigenerational workforce revealed mental and physical wellbeing is becoming increasingly valued by workers – often more so than other benefits and even salary – indicating that businesses need to think about tailoring a wellbeing plan to meet the diverse needs of the modern workforce.

We have spoken with employees across various sectors and its clear there is still a stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace. Words like ‘shame’, ‘embarrassment’, ‘weakness’ and ‘inferior’ were used frequently to describe how they or others might feel having to talk about their mental health to their employer.

Employers need to promote openness around mental health if they want healthier, happier, and more productive teams. While company culture is not something that can be transformed overnight, there are some effective changes that can be implemented now to help address this head-on. With time and commitment, companies can build a supportive culture of transparency around mental health in your business.

Here are four simple things you can do to foster a culture of openness around mental health in the current climate and get your employees in a good place for when business operations return to usual.

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  1. Create a mental health policy

Wellbeing packages are becoming increasingly important for the modern workforce, with half of all employees surveyed saying a strong health and wellbeing focus would increase their likelihood to join or stay with a business. Generation Z employees (age 16-23) revealed they would even be willing to sacrifice a third of their salary to receive a healthcare package that fits their personal needs.

Despite these learnings, it was revealed eight out of ten SMEs don’t have a policy in place – this obvious and crucial first step which sends a signal to your employees that their mental wellbeing is important to you. Your policy should be widely circulated and promoted to demonstrate that you are committed to remove the stigma of surrounding mental health. A policy isn’t the golden bullet but sets the tone for things to come.. It should also be made clear that if employees open up about mental health issues, they will receive immediate help, not discrimination. By introducing specific policies such as flexible working and paid leave, you will also show employees that mental health is being treated with as much respect as physical health.  

  1. Provide access to a 24/7 confidential helpline

Our survey revealed workers, particularly younger ones, place value on mental health support and additional benefits such as counselling sessions. Though its important employers provide an open forum for discussion and support within the business, this can be bolstered by introducing a dedicated mental health support line for those who may not feel comfortable discussing mental health issues with their manager or HR.

Adopting this kind of service while teams are working from home could be very beneficial to employees who may be suffering in silence at a time when it’s difficult for employers to spot red flags.

  1. Ensure a good work-life balance

Employees need time away from work to switch off and recharge; if they don’t, they’ll be at risk of a burn out and poor mental health. Businesses need continuously emphasise the importance of work-life balance, especially in the current climate where teams might be working remotely and have new pressures to face at home.

Some of the ways you could start promoting a better work-life balance for employees include emphasising that they are not obliged to reply to emails outside of office hours, encouraging flexible working hours – particularly for those with caring duties – and reminding employees to take time away from their desks, as well as ensuring they use their holiday entitlement.

It is worth noting that this behaviour must be encouraged from the top down. If managers are taking company calls while on a holiday or only ever eating lunch at their desks, it sets unhealthy expectations and employees will feel compelled to follow suit.

  1. Introduce mental health training

Understandably, supporting mental health within the workplace may be a new concept for many managers and, without training, they may not know how to spot the signs of poor mental health or feel confident and equipped to address it. Businesses can empower line managers to help their teams by providing them with training which could cover the different models of mental health – medical and biological or psychological and social – as well as the diagnosis and treatment of mental health illnesses from the causes, signs and symptoms.

Developing basic listening skills can also be key in building rapport, promoting trust and encouraging openness with employees in need of support.

Whilst businesses face exceptional challenges, these simple steps can keep teams healthy, happy and productive and – by implementing these now – employers can put themselves and their teams in a strong position for when life and business begins to return to some normality.