Increased openness around mental health in the workplace is a hugely welcome development. But despite more awareness, the cost of mental health problems in the workplace continues to rise. So how can organizations address the underlying issues? We take a look.
Mental health at work is taking on even more significance for company culture post-pandemic.
According to a Mind Share Partners study, 78% of Millennials and 81% of Gen-Z workers have given up jobs for reasons relating to their mental health, while a huge majority (91%) believe that employers have a responsibility to support the mental health of their workers.
Meanwhile, a McKinsey study uncovered what it calls a disconnect between employers and employees when it comes to mental health. For example, it found that while 71% of employers of frontline workers said they were effectively supporting their teams’ mental health, only 27% of those workers agreed.
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Why is mental health in the workplace important?
Safeguarding the mental health of employees is a vital ingredient in a positive workplace culture. But it’s also an enormous financial issue because of its impact on productivity, sickness absence and turnover. According to Deloitte, the cost of poor mental health to UK employers has leapt by 25% since 2019, hitting £56bn in 2020-2021.
Part of this may be down to the burnout some employees have experienced, especially at the height of the pandemic. Changing ways of working, while largely welcomed by employees, may be playing a part too. Whatever the underlying issues, mental health needs greater attention from business leaders and employers if the price is not to get even higher. The good news is that this attention can pay off: another Deloitte report points out that, with one in six workers experiencing a mental health problem at some point in their careers, employers who invest in mental health support and understanding can benefit from a return on investment of around 500 to 1.
Mental health and working from home
Even before Covid-19, businesses were beginning to rethink how and where their employees work. Measures to counter the pandemic massively accelerated this process, making home the workplace for millions of people. But while working remotely has brought flexibility, more choice and greater technological innovation, some people haven’t found the experience entirely positive.
According to a poll by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), while most people don’t want to return to office-based work full time, 74% say they want to split their time between the office and home working, rather than continue to work fully remotely.
So, while it’s a big plus for many employees, working remotely can bring challenges, which leaders need to recognize and take steps to overcome:
The RSPH survey showed that 67% of workers felt more disconnected from colleagues when working from home.
Workers reported being more sedentary (46%), problems with posture and back pain (39%) and sleep disturbance (46%). Alarmingly, one in four people working from home said they were working on a sofa or in a bedroom.
It’s now well documented that remote and hybrid workers can find themselves unable to switch off at the end of the working day. Rather than improving work-life balance, flexibility around working hours can make people feel that they always need to be available, leading to burnout.
Common workplace mental health issues
Anxiety, stress and depression are the most common types of mental health issues in the workplace. These have taken on new significance with pressure to return to pre-pandemic efficiency, difficulty in managing work/life balance, loss of feelings of belonging and worries about the cost of living all having potential negative impacts on mental wellbeing. This can lead to:
Loss of personal productivity
Reluctance to advance, or slower career progress
Discouragement and feelings of isolation
Lack of focus
For teams and the business as a whole, mental health difficulties can mean:
More tension between colleagues
Lack of support for company culture and goals
Bullying and psychological harassment
Gradual falling away of creativity, innovation and overall productivity
If leaders don’t place enough focus on mental health, these problems can get worse. Employees may be reluctant to talk about their feelings openly, fearing judgement or discrimination. This can lead to missed opportunities to get help, and escalation towards further health problems associated with stress and depression, such as heart disease and diabetes. Overall, according to Forbes, 62% of all missed workdays per year can be attributed to a mental health condition.
But despite the cost of mental health problems in the workplace, according to the RSPH survey, only a third of those surveyed had been offered mental health support from their employers.
Strategies for managing mental health in the workplace
As business leaders begin to take on board the importance of mental health in their workforces, there are several positive steps which will deliver significant return on investment. Managers and employers need to:
Create a culture of support
Talking about mental health is crucial in creating a supportive culture. Leaders should make sure everyone in the organization is committed to supporting mental health in the workplace. This can include normalizing conversations around mental wellbeing, reducing stigma around mental illness and getting issues out into the open as quickly as possible. Involving employees in decision making and being open and transparent will help people feel involved, in control, and more focused and relaxed about their work.
Raise awareness of the signs
Make sure everyone knows what the signs of stress, anxiety and burnout look like, and work on tips to help colleagues recognize and manage problems. Also make sure people are educated about less common mental health issues, like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Lead by example
Show that you’re looking after your own mental health by setting boundaries between work and home, being conscious of stress management, taking holidays and living healthy.
Reinforce a healthy work/life balance
Make sure all employees, including remote workers, understand how to separate working hours from their personal time. Introduce ‘meeting-free’ hours, and designated times to be offline during the working week.
Hold smaller meetings more often
Holding smaller, shorter meetings more regularly allows people to engage more often, and feel that their contributions are valued. Include plenty of one-to-one catch-ups between managers and employees, and build social interaction into working hours, physically or virtually. Think coffee breaks, happy hours and social evenings to create positive emotional connections.
Measure mental health
Anonymous surveys and regular chats can help to monitor individual and overall mental wellbeing across the business.
Insist on holidays
Everyone needs a break. Workers should be encouraged to take all their holiday entitlement, and holidays planned in and supported so other staff aren’t overworked while their colleagues are away.
Offer training and development support
Seminars, training, mentoring and upskilling opportunities will reassure people that their careers are on track, as well as showing the organization cares for each member of the team.
Integrate mental health into company insurance and benefits policies
Mental health should be clearly signposted in company policy, insurances and benefits packages. Successful companies will offer counseling and appropriate therapy as part of a comprehensive team benefits package.
Show recognition and gratitude
Validation boosts a sense of belonging, which is now widely recognized as fundamental to mental health. Acknowledging individual contributions, rewarding success and showing gratitude will lead to greater self-esteem, and build feelings of connection to managers, co-workers and the business as a whole.
Encourage healthy habits
Supporting – and even contributing financially – to healthy eating, allowing time for daily exercise, and offering subsidized gym memberships, mindfulness sessions, etc., will foster a healthier lifestyle among employees. Organizations could also introduce ‘mental health days’, encouraging people to use them for outdoor activities, meditation and pursuing creative hobbies.
How technology can boost mental health in the workplace
Mental health apps
Mental health apps can offer tips and advice, as well as measuring and monitoring the signs of negative mental health. But apps can also help indirectly too, by providing learning and upskilling, and helping with time management.
Giving access to these tools will show support for the holistic wellbeing of the team, and empower people to manage their work/life balance, as well as reduce stress and anxiety.
Many people are already starting to realize the possibilities of the metaverse, entering virtual worlds using virtual and augmented reality headsets, immersing themselves in gaming and experiencing the wonders of virtual travel. But this is just the start – in the future, the metaverse will create fully immersive virtual offices where people can feel as if they’re in the same room even when they’re miles away from their colleagues.
This will help forge deeper connections and feelings of belonging, as well as offering incredible potential for learning and upskilling, and increasing the feelings of belonging so essential for good mental health.
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