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From Surviving to Thriving: the Evolution of Workplace Mental Health

As the societal and financial costs of mental health issues increase globally, forward-thinking HR leaders are spearheading new initiatives to improve mental health in their workplaces.

These programs are seeking to not only tackle poor mental health, but also to promote positive mental well-being and an improved life experience for their employees.

The Case for Mental Health in the Workplace

Depression and anxiety costs the global economy around US$1 trillion per year in lost productivity, according to the World Health Organization.

Tackling mental health in the workplace can offer HR leaders obvious benefits in productivity and improved absenteeism rates. It can also help to improve employee engagement and contribute to their inclusion and CSR agendas.

Work itself is good for mental health, acting as a protective factor and helping to create a sense of purpose and community. However, a negative working environment can lead to poor mental health, with harassment and bullying having a substantial adverse affect.

Whole-of-Life Approach

Workplace mental health programs now reach far beyond employee assistance programs (EAP), which traditionally include free, confidential counselling sessions either over the phone or in person, and are generally offered by independent providers.

Forward-thinking organisations recognise that an employee’s mental health and ability to perform is a reflection of their whole life, including what takes place outside traditional 9-5 work hours and the associated risk factors for mental health.

Initiatives that reflect this ‘whole-of-life’ approach include:

  • Mental health training programs: training for managers on how to raise awareness of mental health, identify mental health concerns within their teams, discuss these with the individuals, and support them in the work environment. For example, EY has a We Care program that encourages employees to talk about anxiety.
  • Domestic violence training programs: training for managers on how to identify domestic violence concerns, raise this sensitively and support the person concerned.
  • Financial support: financial counselling and budgeting support to reduce the impact of financial stress.
  • Leave: mental health or domestic violence leave, unlimited leave, or leave allocations that are not specified so they can be used for mental health, caring for family members and any other needs an employee may have at their discretion.
  • Transition to retirement programs: support for employees to manage their transition into retirement, which is a time many people experience a loss in purpose and the loss of their workplace social networks, resulting in depression.
  • Return to work programs: supporting people to return to work after a period of ill health, after maternity leave, and prolonged periods of being out of work. For example, Vodafone’s Reconnectprogram helps women return to work.
  • Resilience training: improving the resilience of employees, including their ability to communicate and build relationships with others. For example, the United States military worked with the University of Pennsylvania to develop a Master Resilience Training program for soldiers and their families to help protect them against negative mental health and improve their well-being.

Employee Well-being and the ‘Always On’ Work Environment

Many workplaces are seeking to mitigate their role in creating stress for employees through employee well-being programs and policies.

A recent international workplace well-being survey by Cigna found that as the ‘always on’ nature of our working environment is increasing, so too is the number of people whose mental health is badly affected by stress in the workplace.

According to those surveyed, flexible working hours was the best way of dealing with workplace stress, followed by increased work security and paid special leave.

Whilst employee well-being programs can play an important role, it’s important that they are not undermined by a broader culture or environment that runs counter to this.

Examples of additional interventions that are critical to supporting employee well-being and reducing the risk of poor mental health include:

  • reducing the requirement or culture for employees to always be accessible outside core work hours. In France, employees now have the legal right to avoid emails outside working hours.
  • strong bullying and harassment policies and programs
  • strong communication and management practices
  • robust workplace health and safety programs
  • supporting employees’ participation in decision-making and giving them more control over their work
  • clear tasks and organisational objectives.

Social Well-being

One of the new frontiers for health and well-being is the critical nature of social connections. Having strong relationships has been found to be a significant predictor of longevity across age, sex and health status.

In recognition of the important role that social connections play, the United Kingdom has trialled social prescriptions where GPs can provide a referral to community activities. These have been shown to help reduce anxiety and improve overall well-being. The UK government has also recently appointed a Minister for Loneliness to tackle social connections.

HR leaders that help to foster a sense of belonging not only help to improve inclusion within the workplace, they also contribute to an organisation’s triple bottom line by improving the lives of those who work for them.

Examples of initiatives include:

  • social initiatives to bring employees together, including opportunities for employees to create their own social networks and occasions (for example, Facebook lets employees create a social group for almost anything they like)
  • training on how to communicate and foster strong relationships both within and outside work
  • creating an environment of psychological safety, where employees are supported to share their views, including negative or dissenting views, without fear of reproach (including teaching managers how to facilitate this).

Leading by Example

One of the most powerful ways of creating a new culture for mental health within an organisation is having senior executives who lead by example.

This includes leaders who demonstrate positive behaviours such as disconnecting outside work hours, fostering strong relationships and prioritizing their broader health and well-being.

Having honest, open conversations about their own mental well-being and that of their teams is also critical. For example, Alyssa Mastromonaco, former White House deputy chief of staff for operations under President Obama, has had conversations with her boss about her depression and antidepressant medication. EY’s We Care program is always attended by a senior-level sponsor.

The Future of Workplace Mental Health

Whilst many organisations are at the beginning of their mental health journey, the future is looking far brighter for the one in four employees who experience poor mental health every year.

A continuing, open dialogue and the sharing of best practice will help HR leaders to continue to drive a new approach to tackling mental health, and contributing to the development of thriving, happy and fulfilled employees.

Further Resources

For further support and advice on boosting mental health in the workplace, you can check out the following resources:

  • The Center for Workplace Mental Health (US) provides resources, case studies and advice on how to make a business case for workplace mental health programs
  • Mental Health at Work (UK) has toolkits and resources, including those for organizations working in particular industries, such as construction.

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