A preventative approach to mental ill health in the workplace 

Black man smiling in casual office, on laptop

Increasing mental health issues are posing a huge challenge for employers worldwide.

According to a recent World Health Organization’s (WHO) report, an estimated 12 billion working days are lost annually to depression and anxiety, amounting to US$1 trillion of lost productivity each year.

WHO estimates that around 15% of working age adults had a mental health disorder in 2019; since then, the pandemic, cost of living crises, and job insecurity concerns, have only exacerbated the situation.

As far as the UK is concerned, a recent Business in the Community report highlighted the scale of the problem for both organisations and individuals. Mental health issues cost UK businesses up to £45 billion a year, while two in five employees reported experiencing work-related symptoms of poor mental health in the previous year.

Of course, mental health problems come in different forms. While job burnout is often a consequence of accumulative and long-term workplace stress, other mental health issues such as depression and anxiety may be rooted in a variety of causes which may require clinical support.

Irrespectively, the implications for organisations and their employees are closely entangled. As WHO observes: “A lack of effective structures and support at work, especially for those living with mental health conditions, can affect a person’s ability to enjoy their work and do their job well; it can undermine people’s attendance at work and even stop people getting a job in the first place.”

So, what preventative measures can employers take to nurture their workforce’s mental wellbeing, manage workplace stress, and minimise the risk of pre-existing conditions from undermining the ability to fully engage with their work? Here are three ways to look after mental health in the workplace.

  1. Offer support

    WHO highlights that the ‘workplace is a key example of a setting where transformative action on mental health is needed’.  If there’s a supportive organisational culture built around open communication and psychological safety, employees are more likely to talk to their managers about what’s worrying them, whether that’s within or outside of work.

    Similarly, it’s easier for managers who notice changes in a colleague’s behaviour or demeanour, to approach them and let them know they are concerned and suggest pathways where they might find support. It’s not about diagnosis or heavy-handed advice, but rather the ability to show concern, compassion, kindness and empathy towards others.

    Such support can involve listening non-judgmentally, reminding the person of the counselling services available through the workplace for them and their family, and ensuring they are aware that the Employee Assistance Programme includes online access to services which include GPs, counselling, and financial advice, and understand how to access them. It might also mean adjusting workloads, or building in more flexibility to their working arrangements to help promote a better work/life balance.

    While managers are key to this strategy, it is important to bear in mind that leaders themselves may already be feeling overwhelmed by their responsibilities, and therefore need flexible and structured support and training to be able to provide employees with the listening ear they need.

    Accordingly, Mercer research demonstrates a shift in mental health training, as organisations are preferring to take a more inclusive approach that promotes mental health awareness across the entire workforce. Recent research, performed by their clinicians in the Workplace Health Consulting team, suggests the trend for companies to introduce training which promotes self-care behaviours, empathy, resilience, and engagement, as it has a greater effect in reducing levels of stigma and increasing levels of employee trust in their employers. Accordingly, this trend aligns with several health authority guidelines, which strongly recommend the promotion of mental health awareness in the workplace. Essentially, the ability to introduce mental health training awareness for all, can help organisations remain ahead of the trending curve.

  2. Establish boundaries

    There’s nothing groundbreaking about the idea that people need to be able to switch off from work in order to fully appreciate and enjoy their private life; but working from home and omnipresent social media have made it much more difficult for many people to leave work in any meaningful sense.

    Employers can set the parameters in this respect, for instance by encouraging staff to turn off email and notifications outside of working hours, discouraging them from taking work home on a regular basis, and promoting systems to help them make better use of their time by prioritising tasks (for instance, the 4D method: do it, defer it, delegate it, drop it).

  3. Practice self-care

    Looking after yourself is an important skill, for all employees at every level of an organisation. Again, simple practices can be disseminated through efforts to build an organisation culture of wellbeing which promotes self-care. It’s not just about mental wellbeing either; employees’ physical, social and, increasingly, financial health, all feed into and impact each other.

    For example, businesses can encourage employees to take even just a 15-minute walk in the fresh air each lunchtime, rather than working through their lunch break. Numerous studies have shown that taking breaks from work makes people more productive and less susceptible not only to mental burnout but also to chronic disease and physical ailments.

    Eating healthily, taking regular exercise, being sociable, and getting good sleep – all can help to strengthen mental resilience. Organisations can encourage staff to look after themselves through simple practical initiatives such as lunchtime exercise classes, fresh fruit deliveries or book clubs, as well as by regularly sharing guidance and tips. Mercer’s latest Health on Demand report suggests that organisations with a strong pro-health culture have higher levels of employee retention and engagement. 

    The opportunity to build an organisational culture of wellbeing that promotes subtle changes in behaviour can help make a meaningful difference to your workforce’s mental, physical, and social wellbeing. And that in turn feeds into greater productivity and creativity in the workplace.

    If you want to know more about preventative approaches to mental ill health in the workplace, employee listening services, and behaviour change interventions, contact your Mercer consultant or the Workplace Health Consulting team.

About the author(s)
Elif Oflaz

Associate Consultant, Mercer Marsh Benefits

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