‘Are you okay?’: Addressing mental health at work

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A business woman holding her head while closing her eyes, feeling stressed and anxious at her workplace.

If someone ever hobbled into the office on crutches, leg wrapped in a cast, no-one would hesitate to ask, ‘are you okay?’. However, if a colleague started to act out of the ordinary, perhaps becoming more tearful, irritable or angry, or their productivity started to drop, would you ask the same question?

With the stigma around mental health continuing to impede on the implementation of successful strategies in modern workplaces, it continues to be an important issue for hiring managers and senior leadership teams.

What’s the state of play?

As it stands, negative mental health costs UK employers £34.9 billion each year1. 2018 research conducted by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and SimplyHealth found that mental health is the highest cause of long-term absence in workplaces, while reported cases of mental health conditions have increased from 41% to 55% over the last 12 months.2

In addition, research conducted by mental health charity MIND found that 30% of staff surveyed disagreed with the statement ‘I would feel able to talk openly with my line manager if I was feeling stressed’ and 56 per cent of employers noted they would like to do more to improve staff wellbeing but don’t think they have the right training.

According to CharlieHR, 52% of companies don’t even have any form of mental health or wellbeing policy in place in 2020, and the majority (94%) don’t feel their company supports them when they need to deal with personal or family issues 4.

What should I be looking for?

Ruth Cooper-Dickson is the founder of Champs Consulting, a wellbeing consultancy service that offers a range of services to public and private sector businesses, including mental health first aid training and bespoke stress-free living workshops, all with the aim of elevating mental health to the same treatment level as physical health. She notes there are plenty of signs that someone is struggling with their mental health:
“Essentially, it’s anything that’s out of the ordinary for the individual. They may be more tearful, or more irritable or angry, or more withdrawn. Often, they will put a mask on, so an introvert will become an extrovert, or the other way around.”

“They might have decreased energy, have a change in eating habits or even complain of unexplained aches and pains”, Ruth says.

More generally, other identifiers can be a drop in the quality of work or productivity, absenteeism and a lack of co-operation between team members.

What can I do?

Mental health needs to be an essential part of any business’ wellbeing policy, with initiatives treated with the same respect as subsidised gym memberships, healthy eating and health insurance.

One way to do this is through the services that Champs and other similar consultancies offer. Ruth explains how initiatives like mental health first aid offer an alternative support source for stressed employees: ‘It’s having that point of contact if you don’t want to go to line manager or HR manager. First aiders are there to have a chat – and while they aren’t therapists or counsellors – they can offer signposts and encourage you to seek professional support and develop self-care strategies.’

Ruth and her team of mental health first aid instructors offer a half-day, full-day or two-day course that educates employees to spot symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression, suicide, self-harm, eating disorders and psychosis; offer help; guide colleagues towards the appropriate support and if necessary, respond to a mental health crisis.

Outside of accredited training, Ruth also notes there is plenty employers can do to address negative mental health.

“Breakout spaces are really important, as they offer relaxed areas where employees can read, play a game, or do another activity that’s away from their screen,” she says.

“Other features like areas to store gym kits and providing healthy snacks for catered meetings will make a big difference in promoting general wellbeing”.

One of the major challenges for organisations who perhaps already have a policy in place is the employee uptake. Business leaders must encourage a top-down approach – if employees don’t see managers participating in offered initiatives, they are less likely to take it up.

“The biggest thing for employees is that they don’t hear the communication and don’t know they actually have mental health first aid, hidden in the Intranet,” Ruth explains.

“Managers should also be assessing their operation processes, so that in 1:1s, they are asking if their employee is okay at the start and not rushing through at the end.”

Whether it’s making small managerial changes, or investing in ongoing training, there’s undoubtedly plenty more room for improved mental health strategies in the workplace. With programs like mental health first aid, asking ‘are you okay?’ is set to become more common than ever.

This piece is the first in the series: ‘Make your working life exceptional: a guide to creating a better workplace.’ Keep an eye out for the next installment!

1. https://mhfaengland.org/organisations/workplace/
2. https://www.cipd.co.uk/Images/health-and-well-being-at-work_tcm18-40863.pdf
3. https://www.mind.org.uk/workplace/mental-health-at-work/taking-care-of-your-staff/
Author David Morel Tiger Recruitment Team

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