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Supporting employees with mental health issues revisited

Sam Wilson  |  April 9, 2020

*Article originally posted in May 2019, updated for current COVID-19 pandemic

It’s estimated that around a quarter of all adults in the UK will experience mental health issues at some point in their lives. Not only could that number potentially increase significantly during these bizarre and stressful times but those that already suffer from mental health conditions are likely to experience heightened or more regular problems. Feelings of isolation and loneliness are prime breeding grounds for mental health issues. As we all face the prospect of an extended period of not being able to leave our homes – many of us are going to have a bit of a fight on our hands.

When I wrote this originally last year, I said I felt the stigma of mental health was gradually falling away but there was still a considerable way to go when it comes to educating society about the various forms of mental illness and the implications for those experiencing them. I’ve struggled with my own mental health issues (primarily anxiety). I can safely say that the biggest issues I’ve faced have come from a place of a lack of understanding or empathy from colleagues and managers. One of the worst parts of struggling with mental health issues is feeling like you’re going through it alone and not being understood by those around you.

In the 11 months since, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a range of employers on their employee experience and inclusion. As a result, I’ve seen a bit more of what is going on inside organisations and how they support their people. And, for the most part, I’ve been really encouraged. Businesses are really beginning to understand the importance of providing proper mental health support. Both as part of their duty of care over their employees but also because of the business benefits that come with it.

The impact of mental health on workers

It’s estimated that around 13% of sick days can be attributed to mental health. Providing better support for mental health in the workplace could save UK businesses up to £8 billion per year. On top of this, the recent Deloitte report ‘Mental Health and Employers: Refreshing the case for investment’ covered some fascinating issues beyond absenteeism. The concepts of ‘presenteeism’ (your people forcing themselves to come to work because they don’t feel they can take sickness leave for their mental health issues) and ‘leaveism’ (employees’ inability to switch off from their work due to heavy workloads, pressure from above and a lack of trust) present a new, fuller picture of the impact that working life and a lack of support can have on people’s mental health.

In these rather unique times that we’re experiencing, things like ‘Leaveism’ are likely to be rife. With the majority of workers working from home, many of whom won’t be used to it, the pressure to prove that they’re doing enough will be felt keenly. Especially amongst those who suffer with conditions like anxiety and will naturally worry.

There’s no doubting that this a time when those with existing mental health conditions might be struggling more than they might do normally. Others might well find that this bizarre is making them encounter challenges with their mental health that they might not have experienced before. So, it seemed like the right point to revisit our tips on how you can best support your people when it comes to their mental health.   

Educate yourself

The more you understand about mental health and how it impacts those experiencing any issues, the better placed you will be to support your people.

A huge part of the stigma around mental health is the various misconceptions and misunderstandings around the simply massive range of conditions and the differences between them.

There are more than 200 classified forms that generally fall into seven categories. The most common conditions include depression, bipolar disorder, dementia, schizophrenia and anxiety. Each have different common impacts on the individual and the extent of the impact differing from person to person.

Possibly the best thing that you can do for your people to help them during any form of mental illness is develop your own understanding. Along with that of your management team. One of the most damaging aspects of mental illness can be the feeling of isolation, alienation or not being understood. If your team feel like they have leaders that understand the issues they are facing and the effects they might be experiencing then this will make a massive difference.

Build a culture where it’s ok to talk about mental health

National campaigns have highlighted the importance of being able to talk about mental health problems. When people feel forced to hide the issues they’re battling with, the impact can become significantly more severe. There has also been a significant focus on people not suffering alone. Something that will become even more important during this period of isolation.

A positive open culture where mental health can be discussed freely is one where those experiencing any issues can seek the help and support they need. It also encourages others to develop their own understanding and offer help to others. Whilst some won’t ever feel comfortable speaking about their own experiences, others will be very keen to in order to raise awareness. Providing these people with a platform to tell their stories will not only serve to educate those around them but will also let others with mental health conditions know that they’re not alone. Company or team meetings, newsletters or workshops are great opportunities to do this. Obviously in times when your people can’t be together, all of these things can be done virtually.

Companies leading the way in employee mental health support have launched initiatives where people have volunteered as mental health ‘first aiders’ who are available for anyone having any kind of issue to go to for help. Again, when your people are all working remotely it’s important that people are simply made aware who they should be contacting and how. For your first aiders, it’s important that they have a certain amount of dedicated time when they can answer messages and have phone or video calls.

Organisations that are willing to invest time, resource and money into raising awareness and starting the conversations about mental health often see significant drops in sickness and productivity levels rise. Simply knowing that help is available and that they don’t need to keep their problems a secret will have a huge impact.

Help take the pressure off

In the majority of cases, work, by its very nature, brings pressure along with it. Unfortunately, pressure is likely to heighten or increase the effects of mental health conditions. Now, no one is expecting any employer to forego their business objectives or performance in order to make life easy for their employees. However, if you approach it in the right way, you can relieve some of the pressure that will help your people perform to the level that you need them to.

Especially during these crazy times, employers could do well to identify instances where they can cut their employees some slack. We’re all facing some of the most challenging times that we might ever encounter and a little understanding from those above us will go a long way. Whether it be allowing people to work in ways that suit them best, giving people time to share in their childcare/home teaching duties or simply relaxing deadlines when not urgent.

These are just a few examples of ways that you can support your people. During these completely unprecedented times, perhaps the most important thing we can do as leaders is show our people that they aren’t alone. We are all trying to get through this together and need each other more than ever before.

For those looking to find out more about the impact of mental health and how they can better place themselves to help their employees, charities such as Mind and Mental Health UK provide a range of services.

Look after yourselves and each other.

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