With recurrent headlines and troubling statistics aplenty, you are most likely aware of the increasingly bleak national picture of mental health in the workplace, and the prevalence of mental health problems across the UK really should not be understated.

Approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK are said to live with a mental health problem each year, and with most of our adult life spent at work, unfortunately, a significant proportion of those struggling with poor mental well-being will be working full-time.

Now more than ever, the onus is on all of us to ensure that we are supporting the mental health of our colleagues.

In this blog, we lay out the backdrop of workplace mental health, and give you tips for addressing the mental health problems within your office head on, ultimately supporting the colleagues around you.

Workplace Mental Health: The National Picture

We broadly define mental health as our emotional, psychological and social well-being, which fluctuates throughout the course of our life as we are presented with new challenges, enter new environments and interact with those around us.

Mental well-being affects the way we think (often about ourselves) and the way we feel, determining the actions we take and the choices we make. Discarding our taboos of mental health problems, we must understand that problems vary from person to person, and unfortunately it is very difficult for many people to open up about the difficulties they face.

The most common mental health problems include:

  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

With regards to mental health in the workplace, poor mental well-being can cause our colleagues real difficulties – from getting up in the morning and making it to work, to struggling to complete tasks and manage workloads, to deteriorating relationships with fellow colleagues.

Unfortunately, without appropriate support, many of our peers feel that they simply cannot face coming into the office. In fact, research undertaken this year by the Health and Safety Executive found that stress, depression and anxiety account for 57% of all sickness days in 2017/16, with 15.4 million working days lost due to such conditions in the year.

Though poor mental well-being often stems from issues arising outside of the workplace, the vast majority of employees (80%) experience work-related stress, and unfortunately such stress invades the home life of many staff.  The greatest pressures felt by employees are mounting workloads (often leading to overworking) and challenging targets, poor management and a lack of communication and support. A study this year found that 39% of UK adults admit that they feel too stressed in their day-to-day lives.

But, even though there is a clear fundamental link between mental well-being, employee productivity and sickness levels (with obvious associated costs to management), employers are still simply not doing enough to support staff.

One-third of employees don’t feel comfortable approaching their managers about mental health problems – yet, most organisations feel that no such barriers exist.

Employers really must embrace responsibility, not only for the well-being of their staff but also to address the financial problems that stem from poor workplace health. National NHS initiative Mindful Employer states that the financial cost of mental ill health equates to approximately £26 billion per year in Britain – this is £1,035 for every employee when you break it down!

With unprecedented attention on how organisations should be responsible for supporting the mental health of employees, we present some practical guidance on how to effectively address mental health in your workplace.

Develop 'Mental Health Trained' Line Managers


Line managers play a fundamental role in promoting positive mental health in the workplace, as not only do employees need to feel that they can approach their superiors, but we must also make sure that our line managers feel confident in addressing mental health problems early on.

Managers should be able to feel competent in identifying mental health problems by picking up on key changes in behaviour, and both the physical and psychological symptoms of mental ill health. Managers also need to feel confident enough to have a confidential conversation with an employee at an early stage.

The earlier we can notice that someone is experiencing a difficulty, the quicker colleagues can be supported, which helps to prevent issues from worsening and colleagues going off on prolonged sick leave.

Ideally, managers should feel confident in understanding a range of mental health problems, knowing how to promote mental well-being and support employees with practical adjustments, or by signposting appropriate areas of internal and external support.

Promote Open Communication and Normalise Conversations


Two-way communication is key – everyone should feel that they can voice their concerns. We are quick to discuss physical health openly, and we need to apply the same approach to our mental well-being.

Let your colleagues know that they can discuss their concerns with you openly, and let people know that their mental health matters. Colleagues should feel that voicing issues will lead to support, not discrimination.

Having regular group team meetings, well-being steering groups, awareness days, regular communications on mental health awareness and placing leaflets and posters around your office are great ways to begin to normalise conversations around mental health.

Remember regular one-to-ones – monthly meetings between line managers and employees can prove an excellent way to not only catch up on day-to-day matters, but also to help build trust and promote openness, and ultimately give people the chance to raise issues at an early stage.

Non-Judgemental Listening


If you are approached by a colleague with their mental health problems, it is important that you listen without judgement.

Let the person speak freely about the way they feel – how their problems are affecting them both inside and outside of work, what they feel is causing their distress and what support they feel they require.

Try to show attentiveness to what the person is saying without interrupting – by letting the person speak openly and not pushing for answers, you show that you value their opinion and respect the way they are feeling.

Where possible, ask open questions and don’t make assumptions. It is may be beneficial to summarise what the person has said to you so that you show that you understand how they feel.

Avoid using superficial language such as “Cheer up” and avoid being critical by posing questions such as “What’s wrong with you?”

Know Your Limitations


As much as we all try our best to support the colleagues around us, you need to ensure that you know your limitations. Without being a trained mental health professional, some things can, unfortunately, be out of your control.

In the below circumstances, it is important that you seek the appropriate sources of additional support, be that from management or by signposting internal services such as HR or Employee Support and Counselling or external support such as visiting a GP:

  • Concerns over someone self-harming or if they voice suicidal thoughts
  • If someone is experiencing problems with alcohol or substance misuse
  • If supporting a colleague is affecting your own well-being

Luckily for employers looking to address mental ill health in the workplace, there are many resources available. Many qualifications have been developed to increase knowledge about mental ill health, and there are great training providers out there, like The Skills Network, that offer high-quality online distance learning courses.

It really has become more important than ever to raise awareness of mental well-being, to normalise conversations around problems we may be facing, and ultimately support our colleagues where possible.

Do you have any tips about how to address mental ill health in the workplace? Join the conversation on Twitter and Facebook using #workplacementalhealth.

See you out there!