Mental illness costs employers in the UK a lot of money – up to £30 billion each year in lost production, absence and recruitment costs according to Acas, which has recently published a guide to “promoting positive mental health in the workplace”.
The benefits for employers in proactively addressing this issue include improved performance, more regular attendance and a better engagement with work. Positive mental health can also help workers to adapt to changes in the workplace, as well as strengthening relationships between colleagues and with customers.
Acas advises that it is in employers’ interests to improve awareness of mental health within their organisation by:
- tackling the causes of work-related mental ill health
- creating a culture where staff feel able to talk about their mental health
- supporting staff members who are experiencing mental ill health.
The guide sets out a step-by-step process to help employers and senior managers achieve these objectives and promote positive mental health.
Understand mental health
Employers must themselves understand mental health issues in order to be better placed to support and encourage their staff to talk about the subject openly. This includes recognising the causes of mental ill health and identifying how to remove any stigma associated with it from the workplace. Negative associations around mental illness can lead to an employee feeling judged or being fearful of discrimination, and they discourage people from talking about their mental health.
An employer can tackle any stigma by educating their workforce about mental health. Such education will make colleagues more likely to support one another, prevent individuals from feeling that they must hide mental illness (which causes additional problems), and encourage those experiencing mental ill health to seek help at an early stage.
In understanding mental health, it is also essential to understand the associated legal obligations. Acas makes the point that where an employee’s mental ill health amounts to a disability, the organisation must consider making reasonable adjustments to help the individual carry out their job. This might include flexible working hours, changes to start and/or finish times, changes to their role, moving their workplace, increased support, coaching or mentoring.
Commit to improving mental health at work
When an employer has decided to try to improve mental health at work, it should make a commitment by: developing an action plan to change attitudes; creating a mental health policy; and ensuring senior managers champion awareness of mental health.
An action plan should include:
- the employer’s objectives
- details of how the organisation will identify and tackle the causes of mental ill health in the workplace
- a range of activities and key messages to educate staff and managers
- support processes for those suffering mental illness
- details of how the organisation will measure itself against its objectives
- a commitment to revisit the plan regularly to evaluate the effect on staff mental health.
Organisations should set out their approach to mental health in a policy, to which staff and managers can refer for guidance and which will ensure a consistent approach. A policy can also highlight the organisation’s dedication to promoting positive mental health. When developing such a policy, Acas recommends that employers should consult with their staff and representatives. Subsequently, they should regularly review policies to check they are still relevant and working.
It is also important to try to ensure that senior managers champion awareness and fight to remove the stigma around mental health issues, such as by arranging and actively participating in team meetings and organisational initiatives that promote awareness. Acas also promotes senior managers acting as role models to encourage healthy working - for example, always taking a break from their desk for lunch and encouraging others to do the same.
Identify ways to improve the workplace
Improving mental health in the workplace begins by tackling the causes of mental ill health within the organisation. An employer should identify which areas of the workplace might be a cause of mental ill health by looking at information on staff turnover, sickness absence, performance data, and by involving staff and asking for their suggestions.
Acas recommends providing additional resources of support for staff. As well as encouraging individuals to talk to their manager about any mental health concerns, an employer could designate particular employees to be “mental health champions” in the workplace. These champions help raise mental health awareness and provide an additional source of support when employees do not wish to confide in their manager. Employers may also consider using external services to provide additional support.
Trade unions and other employee representatives can also play a part in promoting change in the workplace as they know the organisation and may be more willing to highlight areas of concern to management. They are also often able to draw on similar issues from other organisations and offer suggestions as to how they have been successfully dealt with elsewhere.
Educate the workforce
Within the organisation, staff at all levels should understand what mental health means. Managers should be trained in how to support their team members and to recognise the signs of mental ill health. It is vital that managers are confident when a situation regarding mental health arises and understand the common types of mental ill health, the differences between them, and the types of support and possible adjustments that may help an individual experiencing mental ill health.
Training for staff members could cover:
- the law concerning equality and discriminationand how it can be relevant to attitudes towards mental health in the workplace
- standards of behaviour expected of all staff and how unacceptable conduct will be dealt with
- what staff can do to improve and maintain positive mental health e.g. out-of-work activities
- who they should go to if they need advice or support.
Getting further support
The final step in the Acas guide is that an employer and its managers should know where to find further resources, if required. There are a range of organisations and programmes that can provide help, including Mindful Employer, Mind, Remploy, and Rethink Mental Illness.