According to Unum UK’s “Mental health as a workplace asset” report in partnership with The Mental Health Foundation and Oxford Economics, 15 percent of UK employees – 4.9 million people – are affected by common mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.
Such issues are fast becoming a top priority for businesses both large and small, especially as it’s clear mental health challenges have no boundaries when it comes to the world of work.
It doesn’t matter how big your business, or how far a certain employee is up the career ladder. If stress and personal issues become too much it can have serious impacts on anyone at any time.
To unlock the true potential of your workforce, businesses need to be prepared. Leaders should be proactive in implementing both preventative and reactive measures, plus ensuring their workplace is a supportive environment for employees already living with a condition.
1. Be flexible
As an SME, you’re perhaps more likely to understand your employees on a more personal level than a larger organisation. Use this to your advantage and leverage this knowledge to create a tailored mental health strategy to the unique needs of your employees.
Today, one in three sick notes given by GPs are due to anxiety and stress and this can hit small businesses hard who operate with tighter staffing levels. Even a short-term absence can have a negative knock-on effect for the rest of the team.
Of the people surveyed, 67 percent said they would like to use flexible working to informally support their mental health. Being more adaptable with working hours and locations for employees could mean reduced instances of absenteeism and prevent problems escalating for your business in the long run.
If you are aware of an employee who is going through a difficult time in their personal life, you could offer them the chance to work from home a few days a week or temporarily change their hours to help relieve some of the pressure.
2. Apply ‘cognitive hygiene’
Whilst sounding slightly odd at first, the term ‘cognitive hygiene’ (pdf) is one of the latest ideas to support better mental health.
The premise is to equip your workforce with the skills they need to become emotionally resilient and make good decisions on demand, which in turn prevents exacerbating mental health issues.
To put this into practice, ingrain core skills into your workplace culture that support positive mental health.
Provide advice on the best free mindfulness apps (such as Insight Timer, Aura and Omvana) to encourage ‘in the moment’ thinking and relaxation, place value on the act of giving gratitude no matter how small the task, and encourage a healthy work/life balance by setting daily reminders for staff to go home on time and take time away from their desks during breaks.
3. Build ‘safe spaces’
As a business owner, it’s your responsibility to make your workplace a great place to be but there’s no magic formula. Safe spaces can mean different things to different people, so don’t be scared to ask your employees what they would like.
A small initial investment can pay off in the long run if it means you’re more likely to retain your employees.
Creating an ‘office wellness room’ separated from the busy workspace and dedicated to socialising can encourage team members to really get to know each other in a personal capacity. This is integral for a small business to function at its best.
Remove all technology from the equation to make the space even more relaxing.
4. Overcome barriers to disclosure
In our study, 42 percent of people diagnosed with a mental health problem in the last 5 years had not disclosed this to their employer, with 46 percent of people fearing discrimination.
As an employer, if you are unaware a staff member is experiencing a mental health problem, you are unable to help. So, creating a culture of disclosure is imperative.
Nominate a mental health champion who is available for informal chats and actively promotes an open dialogue about the causes and symptoms of common mental health problems. They should also be able to educate about the ways to get additional, professional assistance if staff are still struggling to cope.
Businesses can also introduce Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) for those who may need more advanced support.
EAPs offer direct, confidential contact with experts who can support individuals with areas causing emotional distress, from family issues to work-related problems, addiction and mental illness.
Companies may have access to EAPs with group risk products, like Income Protection.
5. Recognise mental health ‘triggers’
Some businesses still lack knowledge and understanding about mental health at work, with only 10 percent of line managers believing they have received sufficient training to deal with such issues.
For a strategy to be effective within a small business, all managers should be able to spot the early signs or ‘triggers’ that lead to poor mental health, as well as being able to implement reactive strategies for team members when needed.
Mental Health First Aid training is also available to give employees the tools to keep themselves and their colleagues healthy. There are many different sessions available and some third-party providers offer in-house training too.
Continuing the wellbeing revolution
There are plenty of simple and low-cost solutions that SMEs can follow to create a positive workplace environment that supports mental health.
There is no “silver bullet”, but a business that encourages disclosure, education and commitment from the top down is more likely to see improved results, across all levels.
However, this is an ongoing journey, so be sure to carry out your own research and regularly collect feedback from your staff to ensure you find the best solutions for your own, unique workforce.
About the author
This article has been written exclusively for ByteStart by Liz Walker, HR Director, Unum UK