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Five things employers can do to protect staff mental health

Lydia Smith
Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
Teaching, social work, nursing, law and finance often top the lists of most stressful jobs, causing high rates of depression and anxiety . Picture: PA Images

Keeping on top of mounting piles of work while maintaining your personal life is not an easy task. For many, it can lead to high levels of stress – which left unchecked, can lead to mental health problems.

Last year, a study into workplace wellbeing by the charity Mind found poor mental health is common, with nearly half of all people surveyed saying they have experienced a mental health problem in their current job.

Of more than 44,000 employees, only half of those who had experienced poor mental health had talked to their employer about it – suggesting as many as one in four UK workers is struggling in silence.

Addressing poor mental health among workers is also crucial for employers, too. In 2017 to 2018, the Health and Safety Executive estimated that around 15.4 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety.

From mental health schemes to better office design, here are some of the ways employers can improve worker health.

Open conversations

It’s not always easy to talk to friends or family about a mental health problem, let alone your boss or colleagues. But fostering a workplace that is open about mental health, whether it is stress, anxiety, depression or any other condition, is crucial to keeping staff healthy. Knowing that you don’t have to hide a problem is often the first step to getting help.

“A workplace should encourage open conversations about mental health. Having a workplace where colleagues feel like they can talk comfortably to one another about how they are feeling, certainly helps to build a better, positive environment,” says David Price, CEO of health and wellbeing service Health Assured. “This is an incredibly valuable culture to promote, as it prevents employees from bottling issues or emotions up, which could lead to further stress and anxiety.”

Improve the office

A depressing office does nothing for our wellbeing – and considering Brits spend an average of 42 hours a week at work, improving our surroundings is important. In 2014, Exeter University researchers published a study which found offices devoid of pictures or plants are “toxic” to workers, who were more satisfied and performed better with a bit of greenery around.

Good lighting and access to natural light can also benefit wellbeing. A 2016 study found that air quality and lighting at work can have significant effects on brain function, with poor lighting contributing to headaches and stress. 

Research has shown that creativity – such as after-hours or lunchtime crafting clubs – can also improve mental health. Even offering better food choices and office perks, such as free fresh fruit, decent coffee, healthy snacks and better canteen meals can improve wellbeing too, particularly among workers guilty of eating at their desk.

Get active

Many of us are guilty of only rising from our desks to grab a quick coffee, but ensuring staff get enough exercise can really help mental wellbeing.

“Encouraging employees to get active is a great way to protect their mental health. Whether this is taking regular breaks from their desks and walking around the office, to organising an in-house exercise class or running club,” Price explains.

“Arranging a sports team, such a football or tag rugby, will not only improve employees’ physical fitness but will also improve their mental health through socialising with their colleagues outside of the office.”

Mental health schemes

There are a number of schemes employers can get involved with to improve staff wellbeing, such as an Employee Assistance Programme.

“It will offer your employees a safe and confidential space to talk about their wellbeing with a professional, who will understand what you’re going through and be able to offer quality advice for their issue. An EAP can also assist with domestic and home life issues as well as physical health and financial issues,” Price says.

Some companies offer Mental Health First Aid, in which managers and staff are trained to recognise the first signs of a mental health problem, so they can become a first point of contact for those who are struggling. Rather than acting as a therapist, first aiders learn about common mental health problems and are taught how to listen empathetically, as well as how to direct people to access help.

Keep check of staff workload

Encouraging your staff to take their lunch breaks and work sensible hours is crucial to improving wellbeing. Taking note of long hours worked – and offering some time off – can also make a big difference to stress levels.

Even if you’re pushing to meet targets and deadlines, bear in mind that staff wellbeing may have to be prioritised – which will help boost productivity in the long term. If you are a manager, it’s important to ensure you make time for staff to approach you with worries or concerns, too.