Mental ill health can seem like a very private and individual phenomenon. You can’t touch it or see it. It is hidden inside our skulls, and takes hold somewhere in the mysterious borderline between the brain and the mind. It can affect our very sense of who we are.
But while mental illness may cause sufferers to feel isolated, as a phenomenon it does not happen in isolation. Research shows a strong correlation between inequality and mental illness; the more unequal a society is in terms of income, status and power, the greater the incidence of mental illness. It is also well known that lack of control over one’s circumstances is uniquely stressful.
As an employment lawyer, the arena of life I know most about is the workplace. For those with jobs, a very significant number (and for many well over 50%) of waking hours are spent at work, so what our working lives are like can have a huge impact on our overall wellbeing. This got me thinking about the components of an optimal workplace and what employers can do to support the mental health of their employees.
My suggested top tips are as follows:
- First, make sure you provide an environment with adequate natural light. This may sound bizarre, but anecdotally I have heard of many cases where employees were required to work in the dark or in spaces with only artificial light; unsurprisingly this can have a significant impact on mood. Plants are also good (but not if they die!).
- Organisations with strongly inclusive values that are put into meaningful practice are also likely to be healthier places to work. Feeling valued and respected, regardless of your role, is key to a happy working life. Less hierarchical workplaces and ones where there is less disparity between the top and bottom salaries.
- As for control, an employer which trusts its employees and treats them like adults is likely to have a happier and more productive workforce. The benefits of flexible working for productivity and positive working relationships, for example, are clear.
- Finally, having an open culture where employees can talk about how they are feeling and believe that their employer cares about them as people rather than just as human widgets on a production line, is an excellent way to go.