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Mental health support must run deeper than quirky benefits

Article by Alan Price, CEO - BrightHR

It’s certainly a step in the right direction to see so many employers placing more emphasis on the mental wellbeing of their staff.

More and more workplace benefits – some of which might have at one time been seen as fanciful or unrealistic, or something that would be offered only by the most progressive and forward-thinking of companies – are being introduced at organisations across the country, and indeed the world, which shows that mental health support is indeed high on the agenda for businesses.

The UK has just hit the halfway point of a four-day working week trial which sees over 3,000 workers take on a shorter working week for the same pay and aims to improve work-life balance.

Similarly, one in five UK employers have introduced a right-to-disconnect policy to further support staff in attaining healthy boundaries – a number that could shoot up should the UK follow in the steps of Portugal, France, Italy and Spain, and if calls to do so are successful.

And of course, let’s not forget remote and hybrid working practices, which have grown in popularity since the onset of Covid.

Even “duvet days” are becoming more popular, where a worker can request time off without advance notice to recharge, and many organisations – including Netflix, LinkedIn, and Dropbox – are offering unlimited paid time off too.

But whilst each of these on the surface sound like a brilliant way to support your people’s mental health, employers must also be aware of the risks. They should understand that mental health support needs to run deeper than simply having policies, taking into account that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.

While many favour remote or hybrid working, there is still much of the population who have experienced a detriment to their mental health as a result. One study found that 41% of remote workers felt stressed compared to only 25% of those who continued to work in the office. Of the same group, 42% had trouble sleeping, while only 29% of office workers reported the same. It’s not all that surprising to learn that many face difficulties with maintaining those boundaries between work and home when your office is your living room, and vice versa.

Equally, unlimited annual leave policies – although they do sound heavenly – rarely work in practice. For instance, one firm cancelled its scheme after people felt guilty and never took time off. It can also often be the source of workplace jealousy and resentment should some colleagues take advantage of the scheme more than others.

And the four-day work week might not be all it seems either, with just 47% of the companies taking part in the trial confirming their wishes to continue afterwards amid concerns that employees working shorter weeks feel pressured to cram in their work.

Of course, I don’t want to steer any employer from trialling or adopting any of these schemes; they have proven to be very effective for some companies.

What I would suggest is abandoning the assumption that these will work for everyone. Instead, look at adopting a more organic approach and embedding the importance of positive mental health within your company culture. This is the best way to identity, address and manage employee’s mental health issues.

For instance, operating an open-door policy whereby your employees feel comfortable raising any concerns pertaining to mental health, whether work-related or not, is a great first step.

Removing the stigma typically associated with discussing mental health is a challenge that, unfortunately, sometimes still needs to be removed. Fostering a supportive environment can go a long way in achieving this, encouraging people to raise any issues before they get to a point where they become unmanageable.

To accomplish this, employers should look at rolling out mental health training to managers to equip them with the tools to sensitively, effectively, and confidentially identity, address and manage issues.

Bear in mind some people may not feel total comfortable in approaching their managers for advice and guidance; that’s why it’s recommended to extend this training to mental health first aiders within a workforce too.

Complement this with signposting to effective support provisions, be they introducing reasonable adjustments like an amendment to working hours, changes in work duties, or providing extra education and training; your employee assistance programme which can help your employees and their families deal with all of life’s challenges through counselling and other mediums; or external organisations that can provide specialised support.

It’s important to note that a strong mental health support system within your organisation isn’t “nice-to-have”, it’s a must.

Under the Equality Act (2010) a mental health condition is considered a disability if it has a long-term effect on someone’s day-to-day life. And, as an employer, you have a duty of care to support your employees’ health, safety, and wellbeing.

Failure to provide effective support will have a detrimental impact on your bottom line too:

An estimated 12 billion workdays are lost annually due to depression and anxiety, costing the global economy nearly $1 trillion US dollars.

And that’s not to mention that any companies found to be treating employees with a mental health issue at a detriment could well last themselves in court: in fact.

It’s no surprise that companies will want to try innovative ways to boost positive mental health and that’s great: but just remember that support needs to be weaved into your everyday approach, in the way that your management structure operates, and within your culture.

    A leading authority on employment law and HR, Alan is a Chartered Fellow of the CIPD with 18 years’ experience in employee relations, a Chartered Manager and Fellow of the CMI, a certified practitioner and Fellow of the Australian Human Resources Institute, and a member of the Canadian Human Resource Professional Association. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a member of the Forbes Human Resources Council.

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