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How can you support your staff’s mental health?

Although conversations around mental health are becoming more commonplace, there is still so much more employers could be doing. We talk to businesses and organisations about what companies – big or small – can do to support their staff’s mental health.

According to Mind, one in four of us in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. Despite this, a stigma around mental health is still too often present. Time to Change found that 60% of people say that stigma and discrimination are as damaging, or more damaging, than the symptoms of their mental health problem, with 54% of people claiming they are impacted most by the stigma surrounding mental health in their place of work.

In our previous mental health article, we spoke about how important it is to break down this stigma by making it a part of everyday conversations. Social movements such as Time to Change and Andy’s Man Club have both launched campaigns recently targeting this problem. The social movement Time to Change’s Ask Twice Campaign encouraged people to double-check if they suspect their friend, family member or colleague might be struggling with their mental health, as so often we say we’re fine when we’re not. The talking and listening group Andy’s Man Club’s It’s Okay to Talk campaign went viral when it was first launched, with more than 10 million people getting involved. Recently, Leeds United sported It’s Okay to Talk t-shirts which encouraged five match goers to attend an Andy’s Man Club.

Our industry has stepped up too. Organised by Time to Change, the Time to Talk Day on 6 February was a chance for people to talk about mental health to remove the shame which can come with having a mental illness. LUC, Kingston Landscape Group and Ground Control were among those who took part, as well as Green-tech which took the opportunity to bring its staff together over a bacon butty and a brew. Staff were also shown videos on mental health and given information about the support available to them at Green-tech.

At its 2020 Roadshow, whilst addressing health and safety issues and updates, Ground Control made a point of talking about mental health. HSQE director Angelina Sooren made sure staff knew where to go if they had a problem and that they were trained in how to speak to someone they suspect might be struggling. This was accompanied by a pack of Penguin bars with the label ‘take five’, which encouraged staff to take time to talk about the things they may be struggling with.

Research commissioned by Mind found that work is the most stressful factor in people’s lives, more so than financial problems or health. Surveying more than 2,000 people, Mind also found that “workplace stress has resulted in 7% having suicidal thoughts and one in five people developing anxiety.” It’s incredibly important, then, that employers are taking the steps that the likes of Green-tech, Ground Control, LUC and Kingston Landscape Group are.

If these statistics aren’t enough for companies to take action, independent review Thriving at Work showed that every year a cost of between £33-42bn is incurred by employers as a result of poor mental health, with over half this cost coming from presenteeism – when individuals are less productive due to poor health. In fact, according to Time to Change, mental ill health is still the leading cause of sickness absence in the UK, costing an average of £1,035 per employee per year.

The conversations that the likes of Greentech and Ground Control are having are a brilliant first step, and many may be encouraged to come forward knowing that the door is always open – but many may not. According to AXA PPP Healthcare’s Starting the Conversation, 84% of employees would rather tell their managers about an injury or cold than about stress, depression or anxiety (43%, 38% and 37% respectively).

It is important, then, that a company has other mental health policies in place too.

Eljays44 recently took its commitment to staff mental health a step further by sending one of its employees on a Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) course and many other companies have done the same. As MHFA England states: “The aims of physical first aid are to preserve life, prevent further harm, promote recovery and bring comfort to the injured person. MHFA shares these aims.” MHFA is help offered to a person developing a mental health issue, experiencing a worsening of an existing mental health issue or in a mental health crisis. Companies and individuals can attend half-day, one-day or two-day courses in order to be qualified to provide this assistance until professional help can be sourced.

Green-tech has had two mental health first aiders for 18 months now: “The more we can normalise mental health, the better,” managing director of Green-tech and mental health first aider Rachel Kay tells us. “We’re not counsellors, but we are there to listen and we know what resources are available to help.” Sales manager Roger McGivern is also a mental health first aider, and Green-tech finds that having both a male and a female presence is beneficial as staff may have a preference as to which gender they feel more comfortable speaking to.

An Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) is also a valuable resource to offer staff and will benefit their families too. EAP is a confidential workplace service to help employees deal with a number of issues which could affect their work performance. Paid for by the employer, employees and their family members over the age of 16 will have access to online self-help resources as well as a 24/7 helpline to get advice from a qualified expert. Local EAP providers can be found online at EAP Association.

Working with Bupa, Ground Control has a full programme of occupational health services which are available to its direct employees and its field teams on a case by case basis. Ground Control has even set aside part of its induction process to talk to future employees about what to do if they don’t feel themselves or are worried about a team member. Among the support available is its confidential counselling line, its team of mental health first aiders – which includes every one of Ground Control’s safety advisors – and free gym memberships.

But what about smaller companies? Though ultimately these solutions may end up saving a company money, if there isn’t that money to use in the first place, it quickly becomes a cost that small companies can’t afford. Landscape architecture firm Studio 31 has less than five staff members, but creating a healthy workplace has been a priority from day one: “We wanted a better work-life balance for the practice,” director Katie Flaxman tells us. “We believed this was achievable and set out to prove it.”

As well as facilitating flexible working hours, yoga sessions, dogs in the office and walking meetings – all of which are proven to help mental wellbeing – Studio 31 allows paid time off for medical or mental health appointments including therapy. “It’s really hard as a small company because every team member counts,” Katie explains. “It’s frightening to think that if you allow one member of staff to work from home or have regular time out, that all your staff might do that.

“If you start from a place of flexibility and trust, our experience is that the vast majority of people won’t abuse, or in many cases even use, the resources available to them – just knowing they are there makes an enormous difference.

“The reality is that staffing is usually one of the biggest overheads to any business and the historic view has always been to run a tight ship, meaning staff are in as much as possible, doing as much work as possible. But what most people forget is that often your business’ success is tied up with the success of your staff and if they thrive, often so do you. Looking after your staff’s mental health has benefits in loyalty, staff turnover, office morale and productivity.”

Creating a healthy environment is definitely a way of not only preventing staff from struggling with work-related stress, and in turn mental health difficulties, but also creating an environment where the stigma doesn’t exist. Employers are also well placed to notice if someone is struggling as they will potentially be most aware of a change in behaviour and attitude which could be linked – raising this with staff is important and mental wellbeing can even be easily made part of the annual review process.

If your company hasn’t been built to incorporate mental wellbeing from the start, it can be really hard to know where to begin. Time to Change was voted one of the greatest public health achievements of the 21st century in a study published by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), and its Employer Pledge has now been signed by more than 1,400 organisations. By signing the pledge for free, organisations will receive invitations to go to masterclasses on workplace wellbeing, training courses, activity and resources packs and a monthly newsletter which will provide information about even more resources. As well as making sure to look after their staff, Studio 31 directors Katie, Alex Jobber and Edward Flaxman know it is important to also look after themselves and each other, taking lead from the age-old adage: “If you don’t look after yourself, you can’t look after everyone else.”

This applies to self-employed individuals as well – if you don’t look after yourself, it will be challenging to look after your clients to the best of your ability. Though taking time out may be daunting, there are organisations out there to support you.

One charity helping those in horticulture is Perennial, which has a range of services to address individual needs. As well as helping the UK horticulture industry with financial and physical support, they have recently launched a health and wellbeing service in partnership with Big White Wall. This is a completely confidential online community where members and professionals offer advice and support 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Alongside advice, users will have access to tests and tools to help them understand how they are feeling and offer techniques to help them recover. Perennial will also be able to assist employees who either feel they are unable to go to their employer or explicitly can’t – and they aren’t the only ones.

Remploy’s mental health support service is a confidential and personalised service for people struggling in work because of their mental health. It offers nine months of support at absolutely no cost to the individual. Support can include coping strategies, a return to work plan, advice on workplace adjustments, and signposting to specialist provision or medical support. Although it is helpful if they are, an employer does not need to be on board with an employee receiving this help; an individual would just need to refer themselves via the Access at Work website.

Assisting those struggling with a mental health illness is obviously essential, but we all have mental health and prevention is key. “Just as we go to the gym to keep fit, it’s important to get into good mental habits,” Roger tells us. “By learning how to cope with everyday stresses, we can equip ourselves to be able to cope much better when life does get tougher.” Angelina echoes this message: “Physical health and mental health go hand in hand. You only have to have one of those elements unbalanced and it will affect the other. If you’re in chronic pain your mental health will be affected, and if you have low mental health, you may be less able to focus and more prone to accidents. Neither is more important than the other.”

Perennial is also adding additional support to help prevent a crisis: “As well as its range of vital frontline support services, Perennial is launching a range of new services to help prevent people getting into deeper difficulty.” This will not just be its mental health and wellbeing support service, but a physical health check ‘MOT’, an online budgeting tool and back to school and school holiday support – all of which can have detrimental effects on mental health.

With these resources at our fingertips, and often the simplest solutions being the most effective, it’s perhaps shocking that so many companies in our survey felt they didn’t need to address staff’s mental health until it becomes a recurring issue or mandatory to do so.

The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 protects workers by setting out the general duties which employers have towards employees and members of the public, employees have to themselves and to each other, and certain self-employed have towards themselves and others. But, though Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has an abundance of resources explaining the legal requirements of things like, Pipelines Safety Regulations, Confined Spaces Regulations, working with ionising radiation, and preventing accidents to children in agriculture, there are still no legal requirements for employees’ mental health.

Money and Mental Health launched new report ‘Too ill to work, too broke not to’ in 2018, which explores the predicament for those suffering with a mental health problem and calls for employment and benefit changes to help support these people. Though this has been well received, there is still no legislation requiring businesses to act.

Perhaps it will take a change in the law to push businesses to take their staff’s mental health seriously, but why wait when there are so many simple and effective policies companies can put into place? Without healthy and happy employees, a business will never fulfil its potential, and it’s about time their mental health was taken as seriously as their physical.

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