The conversation around mental health in the workplace has certainly become more visible in the past year.
We know the benefits of these conversations; being more open allows us to better cope with challenges, boost resilience and be our whole selves at work.
By initiating this narrative, businesses not only proactively support mental wellbeing, they can also expect to see a positive impact on staff retention and performance.
It’s for this reason it’s disappointing to read new research from MHR which found that 47% of employees still feel uncomfortable talking about mental health issues with their employer.
Clearly, even after the unprecedented events of the pandemic, mental health is still a taboo topic in many workplaces.
The same research went on to show that many who were unwilling to discuss mental health with their employer even believed doing so would impact negatively upon their career.
There’s a clear rift emerging.
Outside of the workplace, general attitudes towards mental illnesses have progressed, with more recognition, support and even government funding than ever before. In the workplace, however, stigma can remain.
Changing these assumptions is not easy, and success won’t happen overnight.
Until a company culture changes, employees will likely remain afraid and anxious to speak up, which can be detrimental to their health in the long term.
But where can HR leaders begin to support this shift?
It starts with you
There’s no better way to influence culture change than leading by example.
It can be difficult to share your own personal feelings and concerns when you know your organization is not forthcoming.
But with career progression viewed as a reason not to open up, a senior member of staff – or even board level executive – sharing personal experiences can be incredibly powerful.
When managers and executives begin to talk about their own mental health, company culture can change, with employees (regardless of level) potentially losing the fear to advise when they are suffering.
Teach staff to recognize the symptoms
Many employees are well versed in physical health and safety procedures, but too few are taught how to recognize early signs of mental health illness.
This is particularly true for those who have not personally suffered before. As with any illness, a lack of early recognition can lead to bigger problems for the sufferer.
Low levels of engagement or drops in productivity are common signs of mental health issues, and signal that it may be time to start a conversation.
But other, less recognized symptoms – such as altered eating behaviors – can also be indicators, and are just as important to recognize early on.
Your team will likely want to help their colleagues, and there’s an ever growing pool of mental health first aid courses to help them do so.
These cover everything from recognizing symptoms to having sensitive conversations in the workplace.
These courses can provide the opportunity to genuinely shift company culture and break the stigma around mental health if part of a company’s curriculum.
These services should not be used to replace any required support, but rather work as an additional aid to the business and its teams.
Address the root cause
If you sense that your teams are reluctant to open up about their mental health concerns, try to evaluate what the potential issues are, where and how they may have arisen in the workplace.
Burnout, for instance, can often be traced back to a company culture of over-achieving or presenteeism, leading to long-term stress and depression.
Ask yourself, do employees feel pressure to work or answer emails through the night and over weekends? Are there established support networks?
Is there a safe space in which employees can discuss mental health challenges? If any of these questions reveal some ugly truths, it’s time to readjust HR policies and working practices.
In addition, not enough businesses normalize and encourage breaks, while overtime has naturally crept up as remote working became the norm.
Koa’s own Wellbeing at Work research report found that 67% of HR managers in the US and UK had seen an increase in the working hours of remote employees throughout the course of the pandemic.
As the home-office boundary blurred, almost one third (31%) of HR managers also saw a sharp increase in overtime, with staff working 10% or more in hours each week.
Encouraging employees to step away from work, in the form of a 15 minute break after 90 minutes of work, is proven to boost mental health in the long term.
Understand that not everyone will talk
No matter how much you try to foster an open and supportive environment around mental health, remember that there is no one size fits all approach. Some employees may never feel comfortable talking to their employers about their mental wellbeing.
This doesn’t mean though that you can’t support them behind the scenes. There are a growing number of evidence-based and ethical digital solutions which present a discreet and accessible path to quality mental health care for the entire workforce.
Over recent years these digital solutions have been proven to boost mental health. For example, in 2019, a large-scale randomized control study demonstrated that mobile health interventions significantly improved stress and wellbeing.
When symptoms of stress and depression began to rise in the early stages of the pandemic, the usage of these tools rocketed overnight as people embraced the support they could offer.
Digital mental health tools also grant HR managers access to anonymized user data, which can be invaluable for getting a clear picture of your organization’s mental health.
Our own research found that just 30% of HR managers were harnessing this data – data that would allow them to not only scale support as and when needed, but have crucial conversations and interventions with the workforce early on.
In much the same way that no employee would be questioned for wearing a hard-hat or lab goggles, we must reach a position where individuals do not feel judged for asking for support with their mental health.
When a company culture not only allows but encourages these individuals to come forward and speak up, the entire workforce can become healthier, happier and more productive, setting the course for long-term organizational success.
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People and Culture Director
Noreenis People and Culture Director, Koa Health. Prior to this, she was Global Head of HR, ITRS Group. Before this, Noreen held several senior HR positions in the UK and Spain, which included Global HR Director, WGSN and Head of HR, Royal Caribbean cruises.