Employees’ mental wellbeing has become a board-level issue for many organisations. Long hours, increased home working and always-on technology have all contributed to burnout and stress. We also saw a rise in diagnosed mental health conditions such as depression during the Covid-19 lockdowns, as loneliness and health worries added to work-related issues.
We all need to take care of our mental wellbeing to work healthily and productively together. But mental health doesn’t exist in a vacuum: it is linked to our physical, social and emotional health and affected by our financial wellbeing. That means mental wellbeing support at work has to be more than simply offering a generic app – it needs to be integrated into a joined-up approach to employee wellbeing and embedded in company culture.
It also means enabling employees to look after their own mental wellbeing, by giving every individual the support they need to ‘take care of you’, build resilience and work in an empathetic, mental wellbeing-aware work environment.
Supporting self-care, resilience and psychological safety at work
Helping employees to 'take care of you'
Good mental health is a consequence of many factors. Self-care involves helping employees to recognise the importance of and gain meaning in different parts of their life. This will help them to lay the groundwork for improving their own mental health:
- Being in touch with their emotions and becoming more vocal about them
- Exercising regularly
- Making time for fun activities
- Connecting with the natural world
- Tackling discrimination at work
- Helping others
- Learning new skills
- Having a sense of purpose and achievement from work
- Accept your own imperfections
- Building yourself an ‘inner friend’ rather than an inner critic
Self-care for employees means taking a wider look at wellbeing, including physical health and other factors such as emotional health which can affect our mental wellbeing.
For example, exercising aerobically reduces stress hormones and releases endorphins – ‘feel good’ chemicals - and helps improve sleep, which in turn can help improve our mental wellbeing.
Similarly, making time to nurture trusted friendships and family relationships is important for our emotional health. We all need people to share our problems with, and to be there for them in times of need.
Stop the long hours
Work can affect our mental wellbeing in many positive ways, but it also presents risks to employees’ self-care if they can’t find the time to exercise or stay in touch with friends.
Long hours culture, whether in the workplace or remotely, is a major contributor to poor mental health. But when teams are under pressure, it’s easy for good intentions to be swept away by work demands. However, there are five key principles that line managers and HR teams can follow to make sure that working patterns remain under control:
- Encourage managers to know their team as individuals and help everyone play to their strengths. That can lead to everyone becoming more engaged, energised and less likely to procrastinate.
- Help individuals have some control over their workflow, by involving them in their job design, reviewing processes to improve efficiency and building flexibility into targets where appropriate. This gives people empowerment and reduces the likelihood of stress and overwork.
- Focus on outcomes. Engagement, control, flexibility and trust all require managers to prioritise outcomes, rather than micromanaging employees’ hours or working practices. Great work that is done on time by a team that is thriving, is more important than counting hours or checking how long someone spent at their desk.
- Explore how meetings are conducted in a hybrid working environment, so that all team members can contribute whether they are in the room or online. Build in breaks for concentration.
- Build trust and help employees feel comfortable being themselves at work. This contributes to psychological safety (see below), and helps teams work more productively without fear if they make a mistake.
Resilience, in relation to mental health, is about flexibility, adaptability and being able to cope with troubles or challenging situations. The good news is that resilience is a mindset we can all develop, based around four Cs:
- Commitment to a cause: Whether it’s to a job, sport, hobby or charity work, commitment gives you drive, interest in wider society and a reason to get up in the morning.
- Change as a challenge: Cultivate a positive perspective on change rather than being in fear of the unknown.
- Control of a difficult situation: Feeling that you can influence outcomes in some way feeds into a stronger, more positive mindset. If we feel we have control, we are less likely to become stressed.
- Community and teamwork: The outcome from a mutually supportive team is almost always greater than the sum of its parts. A good workplace allows people to plan to their strengths and work together to co-create things.
Create empathy and psychological safety
Effective, empathetic human interaction is a central plank in the framework of any mental health support system, including the workplace. That doesn’t just apply to line managers, but to all employees in their interactions with others. People who are struggling mentally need to feel they are being properly listened to. That could include:
- Use open gestures
- Listen rather than talk
- Paraphrase the essence of what the other person has said to show you are trying to understand their perspective
- Be careful of ‘why’ questions that can sound aggressive
People feel psychologically safe when they are able to be themselves at work, offer suggestions, take risks and make mistakes without fear of negative comeback, rather than having to cover them up.
When Google tested this idea, it found that teams with a high level of psychological safety outperformed their target by an average of 17% - even though those teams made more mistakes. They turned those mistakes to their advantage by learning from them and moving on from errors more quickly.
There are clear links between greater psychological safety and lower levels of stress, a more supportive, empathetic environment, improved team performance and better mental health.
It’s time to smash the stigma of poor mental health
Supporting employees’ mental wellbeing and enabling self-care requires commitment from across the whole organisation: there’s no change unless we all change.
We’ve seen some of the ways that focused workplace actions can help. There are also other ways that the whole organisation can become involved in lifting up everyone’s mental wellbeing and smashing the stigma of mental health.